I once worked with a senior manager named Pierre. He was smart and had a natural intuition about people and operations that made him successful in the company and respected in his area. Pierre also had a tendency to be outspoken and aggressive during negotiations and when resolving conflicts.
I remember a time when I had the opportunity to give Pierre feedback about some tactics he used during a heated meeting we both attended. After giving him my candid comments, I was very surprised at how he reacted. To summarize, he made me feel:
- that my feedback was not valuable for him
- that my feedback was misguided and wrong, and he informed me why he thought so
- the he thought less of me for having "criticized" him.
I distinctly remember experiencing the feeling I would not be going out of my way to give him feedback again.
If you value feedback as a tool for personal and professional growth, then you realize the way Pierre made me feel is not something you want to emulate. Receiving feedback is not complicated once you know how to do it properly, and it is a basic skill for all managers and leaders.
Feedback, the actual words given to you by another person, are not valuable themselves. What is valuable is what you do with those words.
The Four Steps to Receiving Feedback
Simply Say "Thank You"
Don't be like Pierre and debate, defuse or defend yourself. The only acceptable response when receiving feedback is a sincere "thank you" to the giver. Feedback is a gift, and just like receiving an ugly sweater as a Christmas gift, you may not always like what you get, but you should always thank the giver for their effort.
I realize in the heat of the moment, you may feel passionate (and potentially attacked if the feedback is negative) and remaining calm and cool can be difficult. Trust me, I understand.
If you find it difficult to resist debating the validity of the giver's feedback, a simple technique is to hide your reaction by taking notes about the feedback. With your head down, your expression is hidden and you can stay silent or give a neutral sounding "thanks" or "good point".
In certain situations, it can okay to ask a clarification question if you don't understand the feedback you received. However, I strongly encourage you to wait and to ask the clarification question later after you've had time to think about it. Avoid the temptation to clarify and react in the moment. Often we feel like we are asking for clarification, but in reality we are using questions as a way to subtly challenge the feedback or the giver. Unless the feedback is very unclear, play it safe and wait.
Later, when you are alone and in a mood to reflect, think about the feedback you've been given. Remember all feedback is biased. It is truly from the perspective of the giver, and not necessarily true for you.
So to decode the gift you've received, ask yourself:
- Does this feedback resonate with me? Do I feel it is an accurate assessment of my strength or weakness?
- Is this something I've heard before? Is it a trend I've noticed with my career, ways of working, relationships, etc?
- Do I respect the opinion and insights of the feedback giver?
- Is this feedback something I think is important enough that I'm willing to change?
Choose What to Prioritize
This step is especially crucial if you've received a lot of feedback (such as via a 360 analysis, management assessment, or from a performance review).
Not every piece of feedback is accurate and equally valuable. And of the feedback that is valuable, not all of it is worth devoting the time and energy to take action and effect a change in your life.
Choose wisely! All of us have finite amounts of time, attention, and energy to devote to change. Simply changing to make others happier is not the goal when choosing what feedback to prioritize. What change, when complete, will help you achieve your goals, your organization's goals, and increase joy and fulfillment in your life? These are are the types of questions you need to ask yourself when choosing to prioritize feedback.
Take Action (or Not)
Every change and every action has a cost in terms of time, energy, and focus. If you prioritize a piece of feedback enough to earnestly desire a change, then take it seriously and don't try to fool yourself. Don't only tell yourself to "try harder" or to "remember that in the future".
Like any meaningful accomplishment, taking action on a piece of feedback is work. Set a goal for yourself. Give yourself multiple reminders to keep it fresh and in your mind. Ask for follow-up feedback from the people around you to assess if they are seeing the change you are trying to create in yourself or in your environment. Make changes to your environment, create support structure, tools and methods to assist you in your change.
When deciding to make a change in your life or behavior, I advocate working on one small thing at a time and building a new habit. If you are attempting a large change, break it up into manageable pieces. And for the changes you set out to make, go after them with intensity and focus, no matter how tiny or trivial!
There you have it: four simple steps to making the most of the opportunity that receiving feedback provides. Say thanks, give it time and reflect, decide what's important, and take action!
Take care, and I'll talk to you next time.