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  • Salima Hemani

Receiving the Gift of Feedback: Part Two of Two

Highly engaged leaders are not only great at giving feedback, they also know how to receive feedback well. In fact, leaders are more influential when they actively seek, listen to and understand feedback from others. Receiving feedback and letting others into their safe space requires leaders to be vulnerable, which in turn helps build intimacy. On the other hand, if leaders always keep feedback at bay, they don't allow themselves to grow, learn and build stronger relationships.

Feedback Triggers

Feedback can feel threatening and it can be brutally painful to see yourself in the way others do. This is true whether the feedback is on target or terribly unfair. We could list a hundred reasons why we don’t take feedback, especially tough feedback, well. It can leave us feeling confused, enraged, or worse, completely indifferent to the feedback. According to Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, authors of the book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback, there are three key reasons or triggers which can keep feedback out:

  • Truth triggers: The content of the feedback is wrong, incomplete or misinformed. Due to this, the entire feedback might feel off base. For example, a boss gets feedback from his employee that he felt attacked by him in the meeting. From the boss’ perspective, he might have just meant to be direct and assertive in stating his expectations from the employee.

  • Relationship triggers: Regardless of the feedback itself, there is something about the relationship with the person giving the feedback that is throwing the receiver off. The feedback provider hasn’t shown appreciation in the past, or the receiver doesn’t trust their motives or expertise.

  • Identity triggers: We feel too overwhelmed by the feedback to really engage in the conversation. It undermines how we see ourselves and makes us question the story we tell ourselves about who we are. We become threatened, ashamed or defensive. I once worked with a leader who received the feedback that her team found her challenging to work with. This feedback went against how this leader saw herself – as the biggest supporter and champion for her team. Therefore, when she received this feedback, her instant reaction was despair and desire to withdraw from her position.

Techniques for Receiving Feedback Effectively

When leaders can manage these triggers and receive feedback well, they not only give themselves the opportunity to grow and improve, but they also role model behaviors that establish more transparency, trust and growth mindset in the teams and organizations that they lead. So how do you receive feedback well? Here are some key techniques to get better at receiving feedback:

  1. Prepare for Feedback: If you are not ready to receive feedback when someone asks for permission to give feedback, be comfortable with saying “not now, but later.” Then set aside time to receive feedback and prepare yourself. We all are blind to certain things about ourselves. Before resisting feedback, it is important to realize that others might see something in us that we don’t see ourselves.

  2. Listen with an Open Heart and Mind: Assume positive intent. Listen attentively to the person; ask clarifying questions and reiterate their points in your own words to demonstrate that you have heard them and to make sure you’ve understood them. Resist the temptation to judge their feedback, as much as possible, and seek to sincerely understand their perspective.

  3. Disentangle the What from the Who: We tend to evaluate any feedback given to us first from the perspective of who is giving us the feedback versus what the feedback is. If the relationship between the feedback giver and receiver is not healthy, or if the style in which the feedback is provided doesn’t land well with the receiver, than the impulse might be to become defensive or ignore the feedback even if the feedback is accurate and helpful. Therefore, it is best to intentionally separate the content of the feedback and evaluate it on its own merit without letting personal biases about the person delivering the feedback get in the way.

  4. Manage your “Google Bias”: Receiving tough feedback can ignite a strong emotional response, and those strong feelings can distort how we process information. One criticism can trigger an assessment of your entire life. It’s like googling “Things that are wrong with me.” You get a million hits for everything you think you have done wrong in your life, and suddenly it feels like you can’t do anything right. You get yourself caught up in a distorted view of yourself which makes it overwhelming to effectively receive and process the constructive feedback. Therefore, it is important to remind yourself that the feedback is not about who you are but rather about your actions and behaviors. People with a growth mindset believe they are ever evolving and growing, so they welcome feedback as an opportunity to improve.

  5. Decide and Focus on Future: Ultimately, you have the decision power to act on the feedback or dismiss it. Therefore, you need to make an honest decision about whether you want to or not. If the feedback doesn’t feel right, you can agree to observe when it happens again instead of committing to making any immediate change. But if you commit to acting on the feedback, partner with the feedback provider on specific actions and behaviors that would move the needle in the right direction. Ensure that you hold yourself accountable throughout the change process, and proactively seek feedback on the changes to gain the most value and growth out of the experience.

High performing teams and leaders thrive on giving and receiving feedback effectively. When leaders open themselves to receiving feedback well, they not only improve their own performance, impact and influence, but they also raise the potential and effectiveness of the teams and organizations that they lead.

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