You Can Dish it Out, But Can You Take It?
Professional Coach, MSW, RSW
A few years ago, in a performance review, I received the kind of feedback that had the potential to ripple to all areas of my life. If I could hear it.
With the right balance of kindness and clarity, my leader said to me “although you are often right, you have a habit of being loud about it.” She went on to explain that I brought a lot of knowledge to our team but sometimes I didn’t give people enough space or air time to reach their own conclusions before I enthusiastically jumped in with the “right” answer. In hindsight, I may have gotten this feedback, albeit less directly, many times over the course of my life; but I had gotten defensive or minimized its impact to the point that it became irrelevant to me. Although hard to hear, I knew that my leader genuinely cared about my career trajectory and that it was time to make a change. We started calling this “loud right.”
How do you respond to critical feedback? If you’re like many of us, your first response may not be pretty. And believe it or not, there is some neuroscience behind that initial reaction. When your amygdala detects a threat to self, it immediately starts to hijack your frontal cortex throwing you into an emotional hijack. Because of this instinctive response, many of people literally stop hearing the feedback being provided to them….which does nothing to improve their performance. So what can you do to combat this “fight-or-flight” response when receiving feedback? The secret, according to organizational psychologist Adam Grant, is to focus on the “second score.” Consider the first score the initial evaluation of your performance, and the second score is how you respond to this feedback.
"Every time I get feedback, I rate myself on how well I took the feedback," Grant explains. "That's a habit we can all develop. When someone gives you feedback, they've already evaluated you. So it helps to remind yourself that the main thing they're judging now is whether you're open or defensive."
Staying open when receiving feedback is a skill that can be developed. And like all skills, it strengthens the more you practice it. Here are some tips for how to respond better to feedback:
Ask for it
Successful professionals seek out feedback. They ask their bosses, their colleagues, the brave even ask their family members, for candid feedback.
Develop a go-to question
Have a question ready in your back pocket that is both targeted and open ended, like “how could I have more impact on this project?” or “what could I improve that would make it easier to work with me?”
Give them time to think…...but ask them to commit to naming something
You may get some polite (aka useless) feedback initially so ask them to think about it and set a time to follow up with them about it. Some people may feel uncomfortable giving direct feedback (more on this in a later blog post) so it make it easier for them by highlighting why it’s important. “You give such helpful advice to others that I would really like to benefit from your observations as well.”
This might be the most important tip in responding to feedback. Fight the amygdala hijack! Listen and clarify what they are saying, but now is not the time to defend your behaviour. Simply say Thank-you.
Reward the Criticism
Yep, I said that. If you want people to be honest with you, you need to reward the behaviour you want to see more of. You do this by coming up with a plan for how you catch your blind spot in the future and determine what you will do differently. In my case, to correct my loud rightness, I bit my tongue in meetings so I wasn’t the first to speak, I asked more questions instead of know-it-all statements, and I softened my nonverbals.
Recruit some allies
The most helpful, and hardest to hear, feedback is usually about our blind spots. And the trouble with blind spots, by definition, is that we are unaware of them. Recruiting people you trust to point them out will help you to become more aware of when you are engaging in the behaviour you want to change. And these allies don’t just need to be work colleagues. Often undesirable behaviour at work is showing up at home too. (My brother was all too eager to point out my loud rightness at family events….) Nothing is more effective than an alley holding you accountable.
And finally, circle back to the person who gave you the feedback initially to check in with how they see you progressing. Think of this like advertising the positive changes you’ve been making. It’s one thing for you to know you’re changing, it’s even better when others can see the improvements as well. In the words of Adam Grant “the best way to appeal a bad performance review is to demonstrate great performance in the next cycle and prove them wrong.”