How a leader receives feedback signals how valuable feedback is on the team and in the organization and culture. If a leader is very open to the feedback they receive, they are modeling how important feedback is for growth. If they are more closed off and defensive in the face of feedback, they are sending strong messages to the rest of the team that feedback isn’t important. In other words, how well leaders receive feedback has a much larger impact on culture than most leaders realize.
Conveying the Generous Spirit of Feedback
If you can convince your team to view all forms of feedback as a gift, you will succeed in:
- Making feedback less scary to give and receive
- Encouraging employees to be more generous in giving it and hungry to get it
- Garnering candor among your people and getting more honest feedback your way.
The first step is conveying the generous spirit of feedback is by receiving it well.
Receiving Positive Feedback Well
Positive feedback and compliments are easy to see as a gift: Comments like, “Nice haircut” or “Great presentation” give us a dose of confidence mixed with dopamine. Easy to give and take.
When you get positive feedback, notice how you react to it. Do you say push it away, saying “Oh I hate the new haircut, but thanks anyway” or “Who me? That was the worst presentation I ever gave.”
When you contest a compliment, the other person doesn’t feel so great doling them out and just stops doing so. But you want the positive feedback to keep flowing for you AND directed toward others. So instead of looking shocked and dismissive when you get positive feedback, embrace the blushing and simply say, “Thank you.”
Receiving Constructive Feedback Well
The reputation of what is normally known as constructive feedback is what needs to change most. Some people even refer to this as negative feedback, but the truth is that it can also be a positive gift – as it provides us with an opportunity for a blind spot to see the light of day, exposing it and offering you an opportunity to grow in ways you couldn’t have, had you not heard the feedback.
So given that all constructive feedback is a gift, the only appropriate responses start with, “Thank you.” You don’t need to agree with the feedback to appreciate the gesture and spirit in which it was given.
Changing your default reaction to one of appreciation is essential in order to change constructive feedback’s reputation for the better and give people reason to continue offering it.
If you are accustomed to responding to feedback with defensiveness, blame, and justification, this may be a difficult shift for you. You must model what it looks like to embrace feedback with an open mind, an open heart, and open arms. “Thank you so much,” needs to be practiced and used liberally in response to someone offering you the gift of feedback.
Adam Grant, organizational psychologist at Wharton, summed it up best when he said, “The best way to get honest feedback is to reward people for giving it. If you make it hard to tell you the truth, people take the easy way out. When people have the courage to be candid, you can reinforce it with gratitude and curiosity.”
5 Effective Norms for Receiving Feedback
As a leader, it is your job to set the norm in receiving feedback. Because the way you receive and show appreciation for all types of feedback is the way your team members will receive it as well.
There is no point in asking for feedback if you can’t receive it. In fact, if you are unprepared to demonstrate appreciation no matter the feedback, you are not ready to ask for it. It is worse for your culture to receive feedback with defensiveness than to avoid asking for it entirely. So check in with yourself before asking for feedback to ensure you are willing to listen with your entire mind and heart – no matter what.
1. Reward for Feedback
Always reward those who give you feedback. This can be as small as thanking someone for offering it as I’ve mentioned, but it can go much further than this. The more you reward people for giving you feedback, the more comfortable they will feel giving it.
For example, let’s say Tom on your team gave you some constructive feedback on your upcoming presentation. By publicly referencing the helpful feedback you got from Tom in a meeting or an email — and even sharing the improvements you made as a result of his constructive feedback — others will notice you are sincere about your pursuit of professional development. The more you reward the courageous feedback givers, the more people will notice and follow suit.
- Point it out to others acknowledging their courage and helpfulness.
- Make it public to show how much you appreciate it, for example, in a group meeting, call out and acknowledge someone who gave you a piece of recent feedback. Make it public to show how much you appreciate it.
- Bring it up later, showing them you appreciated it so much and remembered the specifics.
- Share the impact their feedback made. This can be as simple as writing them a thank you note or having a conversation with them to highlight the positive downstream consequences their feedback led to.
2. Assume Positive Intent
Always assume the person giving you feedback has your best interests in mind, and they are offering the feedback as a way for you to grow.
Intentions, unless explicitly communicated, can only exist in people’s hearts and minds. You may never know how the feedback was intended – it could be malicious (although it probably wasn’t), or it could be generous. But if you assume it was generous, you’ll learn more and improve your relationship as a result.
3. Don’t Agree or Disagree
Often people think in order to communicate appreciation for feedback, they have to agree with it, but these two thoughts are not mutually exclusive. You can appreciate the spirit in which the feedback is given without agreeing with it. Sheila Heen, author and professor at Harvard Law School, said, “I don’t believe that receiving feedback well means that you have to take the feedback.” Get into the habit of not agreeing or disagreeing, just appreciating it; there is no need to insert your opinion, at least at first.
Instead, be thoughtful and sit with the feedback to see what you think. Observe yourself with the lens of the feedback you’ve been given and try it on in different situations to find out if it fits. Then decide how well or to what degree it suits you (or doesn’t).
4. Practice Curiosity
Listen openly and practice curiosity to see … where might the feedback be useful? Again, this doesn’t mean you have to agree, it means you are genuinely curious and open to see where it might be relevant and useful for you. In most cases, there is a sliver of truth in feedback, even if it’s only a tiny sliver.
5. Avoid Defensiveness
Leave defensiveness, ego, denial, and justification out of your response. Of course, this is easier said than done. If your default is getting defensive in the face of feedback, this is critical for you to work on.
If you are receiving feedback and notice yourself getting defensive, here are a couple of tips:
- Take a break: It’s ok to take some space to step back.
- Find something you can work on: Ask yourself what you can take action on Vs. what parts are inactionable. Focus on what is within your control.
- Look for the sliver of truth: What about this might be true? What 10% of their feedback can you agree with? Try to get something valuable out of it, and also demonstrate to others that you are trying to get value from the feedback they are giving you. As Heen said, “While there will always be something wrong with the feedback you get — maybe even 90% — there will also almost always be something right that you can learn from.” The last 10% may be what you need to make a meaningful change.
The problem is, most leaders are not very self-aware about how they well (or poorly) they are at receiving feedback. In fact, this is an area where leaders have tremendous blind spots.
Build Self-Awareness About How You Receive Feedback
Everyone thinks they are good listeners, and feedback contexts are no exception. Surprisingly, there is a very wide spectrum as far as how effective leaders are at receiving feedback. In fact, Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone, authors of Thanks for the Feedback, wrote in a Time Magazine article, “When it comes to sensitivity to feedback, individuals can vary up to 3000% in terms of how far they swing, emotionally, and how long it takes them to recover. And that has profound implications for their ability to hear the feedback they get, and to learn anything from it.” This means that understanding how you receive feedback is critical in developing an accurate understanding of yourself as a leader.
Ask for Feedback About How Well You Receive Feedback
Understanding how you receive feedback is so important, it may be worth getting feedback about how itself.
Grant recommends paying attention to your reaction so much, that you can make it another assessment point. For example, any time you get a piece of feedback, rate how well you received it, and then ask others to rate how well you received the feedback they gave you.
You’ll notice that there may be a gap between how you see yourself receiving feedback and how others experience you receiving it, as there often is. This step gives you important data on how defensive or open you are, and also sends a message to others that this is an area you are actively trying to improve.
If there is a gap, that is where the blind spot lives and will clue you in on what you need to work on.
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