by Kate Harper
“How many of you regularly ask for feedback?” One hand out of 10 is raised. The rest of the group looks stricken. These leaders are voluntarily here for a class on receiving feedback and still the topic is uncomfortable.
What makes receiving feedback so difficult? “The process strikes at the tension between two core human needs—the need to learn and grow, and the need to be accepted just the way you are,” say Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone, in their Harvard Business Review article, Find the Coaching in Criticism.
Intellectually we understand the value of feedback – it helps us gauge if we are being effective and see inside our blind spots. No company would bring a product to market without getting customer input. Yet when the product is our self, even the thought of someone else’s helpful suggestion can trigger a strong defensive reaction.
Think back to the last time you received unsolicited feedback. Did you want to argue? Run away? Or were you temporarily frozen in place? Perhaps it was a combination: I can’t punch my boss so I’ll just say nothing. Our brain interprets feedback as a threat. The threat causes anxiety which triggers a defense – fight, flight or freeze.
This is a very basic protective mechanism. Even the most enlightened among us will get triggered. So what can you do? One way to receive feedback more easily is understand what triggers you, recognize your physical and emotional reaction, and engage the larger self by asking, “How do I choose to respond?”
You can get the most from even the worst criticism by choosing how you look at it. My mother-in-law once told me I was feeding my children wrong. Of course I took this personally. It felt like a direct attack on my ability as a mother. However, after breathing deeply for a few minutes, I tried a different perspective: Don’t take it personally – even if it is meant personally. Her comment is just information – it isn’t about my identity or worthiness or her worthiness. So I asked her what she meant. My girls didn’t eat her homemade soup for lunch (after Grandpa had been feeding them donuts all morning). This led to a great discussion on how to feed kids and a limit on morning donuts.
Another great perspective is to look for the coaching. If someone is giving you feedback – even if it feels like unwarranted criticism – try looking for the coaching. Is there something to learn here? Hillary Clinton said, “Take criticism seriously but not personally. Your enemies will tell you things your friends won’t.”
As leaders, we are models for growth and learning. You want to be a better leader? Ask for feedback. Make it easier for others to give you input – be specific and future oriented. Choose an area you want to improve that is important to you and ask for specific suggestions to support your future success.
Giving and receiving feedback may never be easy and it can be easier. What helps you more easily receive feedback?
Many organizations teach how to give feedback and few teach how to more easily receive it. If your organization would like to spark learning and growth by enabling individuals to more easily ask for and receive feedback please contact us.