No one wants to stagnate in his or her career, but the alternative—growth through feedback—can be a tough pill for some to swallow. The key to receiving feedback in a positive way and using it as an impetus for change is to understand it and accept it for what it is—and to appreciate the value of the message.
Douglas Stone, founder of Triad Consulting, a lecturer on law at Harvard Law School, and co-author of Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, says the key to receiving feedback well in the workplace is to understand that it’s a normal part of coaching, not a vehicle for punishment. There are three kinds of feedback, he says—appreciation, coaching, and evaluation—and each has a different purpose.
“Too often, when we are receiving coaching or feedback that is intended to help us improve at something, we hear it as an evaluation, which is feedback that is intended to judge or rank us. But, except for performance reviews, almost all the feedback we get in the workplace is intended as either appreciation or coaching,” Stone says. “It might not be delivered well, but regardless of the skill level of the deliverer, we can work to interpret what is said as something intended to help us get better rather than to judge us.”
The key to using feedback for positive change, Stone says, is to truly understand it and have a real conversation about it. “It’s not enough to hear it and then decide if you think it’s helpful or not. You’ll want to ask questions about what exactly the feedback means, such as, ‘When you suggest I speak up more in our interactions, can you say more about what you see me doing and what challenges it’s causing, and what I might try instead? Can you give me an example of when I might speak up usefully and situations in which that’s not called for?’ You have to get past the labels and generalizations and into the specifics,” Stone says.
Angelina Darrisaw, founder of the New York City-based career-coaching firm C-Suite Coach, agrees, and says it’s crucial to understand that feedback is meant to fuel improvement, not frustration. Leave emotions behind and pay attention to the message. “When receiving professional feedback or criticism, it is important to listen—first and foremost. Emotions may run high when we hear things we don’t like or don’t agree with, and, for some, it is natural to be defensive,” Darrisaw says. “Before reacting, truly listen to what is being said.”
Darrisaw says it can help to take notes and ask lots of clarifying questions to make sure you are hearing what is being said.
“Seek to understand why the person is saying what they are saying before trying to negate all their points,” she adds. “Furthermore, feedback, when given well, can be a huge gift, and, frequently, those sharing feedback are invested in your success. If someone on your team notices a small flaw or a bad habit, sharing with you is a way to help you become aware of it and improve. Thinking of it this way may also help you release any negative emotions about receiving it.”
Realizing that your perception might not be the same as others’ is another important point to note, says Maren Perry, MA, PCC, founder, president, and executive coach for Arden Coaching. “The mind-set is really one of learning and education for yourself, because the only thing you have to work with as an employee or leader is other people’s perceptions. You are working into their perception of you,” Perry says. If you think you are sensitive and receptive but no one else does, that says something, she adds. “Others’ perceptions of you are more important that your perception of yourself.”
The first step in receiving feedback is to listen thoroughly and with curiosity, Perry says.
“You really want to get the full amount of feedback. Don’t interrupt, and don’t justify or explain yourself. Ask if there’s anything else you should know about with genuine curiosity. And, if you can’t do it in that moment, take a breath and come back later,” Perry says. “When you’re getting feedback, it’s incredibly valuable information for you because it’s giving you information about what you can do to be more effective in your role. Remember, they are giving you information about a blind spot you can’t see for yourself.”
“We all have learning agendas for ourselves at work and in life, and, to some extent, we can act on those agendas by assessing ourselves and working to get better. But no matter how astute we are, we all have blind spots—things people around us can see that we cannot,” Stone adds. “So, if we’re really going to improve, we need help from others, partly because they can see things about ourselves that we can’t, and partly because we need to know how our actions are impacting them and being perceived by them. We can guess whether patients or colleagues are happy with our work, but guessing isn’t good enough. Feedback is the mechanism that allows us to find out for sure.”
After receiving feedback, it can help to ask for suggestions for improvement, a recommended action plan, and/or ways to measure progress.
“Don’t just say, ‘OK, yes, yes, yes,’ and nod your head. Leverage the new understanding to come up with a plan to make changes,” Darrisaw says. “Ask your manager for suggestions. Get his or her buy-in. Ask for a cadence to do check-ins to see if you are making growth in the areas identified.”
Perry also suggests using feedback as a springboard, not an ending point. Someone might offer you opinions about how you can grow, and you can ask for suggestions for improvement, but you should also take those suggestions and feedback and brainstorm your own plan.
A key to the whole process, however, is that feedback is given in a constructive way. Leaders who want to deliver feedback to promote constructive change will come to the table with ideas for the employee when delivering criticism, Darrisaw says. They should be prepared with measurable ways to identify growth and offer accountability for the employee or team as they try to make progress. Tone and delivery should be managed, and leaders should reinforce that challenges are an opportunity for growth.
“Feedback is critical to any bottom line. Inefficiencies are eliminated when employees are constantly improving their outputs and managing how they work to better meet business goals,” Darrisaw says. Some areas of feedback also help create a more positive working environment for everyone, she adds, and consistent feedback can promote employee growth and motivation. Even poorly giving feedback has its merits, though, Perry adds.
“We hope that it is given with supportive intentions. It’s not really feedback if you’re giving it just to be critical. Feedback is intended for improvement,” Perry says. “You hope that it’s given that way, but you can always make it that way. Even if it’s given poorly, you can choose to turn it around and use that information to get better.”
One might also reflect on why feedback might be given in a negative way, particularly from those who are in a leadership role. Is the work environment set up in a way that makes people self-protective? As a leader, Perry says, it’s important to explore the culture of giving feedback in your organization and make sure that the work environment allows for positive relationships and feedback. “There’s always an education opportunity if you choose to take it,” Perry says.
“The most important thing a leader can do to help promote a culture of learning and feedback is to solicit feedback regularly and to take feedback when it would be useful,” Stone adds. “You can’t ask others to take feedback if you are not open to hearing feedback and taking it yourself. So you have to model it.”
Leaders also have to recognize that just because they are in a position of leadership, it doesn’t mean that their feedback is automatically right.
“When you give feedback, you have to be willing to engage in a two-way conversation,” Stone suggests. “You should ask, ‘What is it about the feedback I’m giving you that resonates with you? What aspects seem off target or wrong? What challenges do you see in trying to use it?’”
Perry says it’s also good to remember that receiving and using feedback gets easier and more effective with practice.
“Go get feedback more often; it’s easier to take. You learn and you get better,” she says. “It’s a learned process and a mind-set. You’re not supposed to know everything off the bat. You’re never finished learning.”
Rachael Zimlich, RN, is a healthcare writer from Cleveland.