Thanks, but no thanks for the feedback

How well do you take feedback? Recently my wife accused my of not taking feedback well. Needless to say, I didn’t take this feedback well. I want to be good at receiving feedback, but I usually come up short of my best intentions. I also want to be good giving feedback too. On one hand, I have a lot of feedback for people – it’s amazing how much better the world would be if people listened to me. But people tend to be less than receptive. Often they will flat out tell me that I may have a good point, but the way I delivered the feedback makes it hard to hear me. It’s a very effective way to protect themselves from the feedback – and it makes me think twice about providing feedback in the future.

Why is giving and receiving so problematic? We all need feedback in order to do our jobs, to know if others are doing their jobs, even to know what our jobs are. Without appropriate feedback I’ve spent countless hours (really, I don’t want to count them), working on the wrong project, built tools that no one has ever used, and driven myself crazy guessing what my co-workers were up to. Without regular feedback at work, things can grind to a halt, misunderstandings may start to pile up, the quality of work often diminishes, and your satisfaction with your job can tank.

One reason why we don’t deal with feedback well is that it challenges our sense of ourselves. When we feel a threat to what we believe about ourselves, most of us will double-down in order to shore up our weakened facade. You, like me, might think that you’re open-minded. That when you are presented with facts that challenge your convictions, you are open to changing your mind. Maybe you are, at least some times. But research covered in books like Influence: the psychology of persuasion, Thinking Fast and Slow,  and others tell a different story. These books tells us that no matter how rational we may be in our moments of reflection, we will still rely on shortcuts to save time and energy.  We could take the feedback, process this new information, and make appropriate adjustments within our opinions. But it’s just easier to dismiss the feedback as unwarranted, unwanted, and beside the point. This works surprisingly well, most of the time.

But there are times when we need feedback. It makes us better workers, but more importantly it gives us the opportunity to be better people. In their book Thanks for the Feedback: the science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood), Doug Stone and Sheila Heen make the case for valuing the feedback that you are receiving . It’s worth reading if you get a chance. They also lay out some ways to get better at receiving feedback. I’ll offer just one: practice receiving feedback.

A few years back at an anti-bullying symposium where I worked, Fran Sepler said one of the best ways to counter bullying was to create an organization that values open feedback. In order to facilitate this, she suggested that people should ask for feedback often. After a meeting, turn to the person next you and ask how you did in the meeting. Ask for feedback on that  presentation you gave. Ask for feedback on any of your job duties. In addition to getting useful information about yourself, you’ll learn more about and your coworkers: what they value, what their concerns are, how they view you, and more.  When they provide feedback, say thank you – and then ask for more if appropriate (it’s important to respect people’s time).

Through practice, I hope to make myself more open to feedback. And maybe through my openness to feedback I can influence others let down their guard. Being a role model for receiving feedback will encourage people to share their feedback more frequently and hopefully to be more open to receiving feedback. By making feedback a normal part of our lives, it should lose its power to trigger our defenses, make us more comfortable with hearing feedback (both negative and positive), and help us to be the people that we want to be.

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