In my opinion, based on what I’ve observed in organizations, receiving feedback may be one of the most difficult thing leaders should learn to do well yet it is key to successfully leading others and inspiring a culture of learning.
Experiencing unpleasant observations and opinions at work can be painful and hard to take. The need for acceptance is universal, so we instinctively move toward enjoyable encounters and away from those that are painful.
Humans are wired to avoid unsettling issues and, consciously or unconsciously, will avoid pain. These natural survival traits drive us as far away from the feedback loop as possible.
Thus, most leaders strongly resist feedback, even when they insist they are always open to it—a continuing workplace challenge. We generally don’t want to receive difficult information about ourselves, so issues go unresolved and challenges grow deeper. Staff is afraid to approach certain subjects, and trust and unity suffer.
Fortunately, leaders can learn to master emotional conflicts through coaching. Fears can be converted into strengths, thereby creating positive results.
Four Challenges of Receiving Feedback
Leaders must address four primary challenges to conquer their natural resistance to feedback, note Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen in Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Penguin Books, 2014):
- Listen and learn from what’s being said.
- Recognize and manage resistance to feedback.
- Be confident when challenged.
- Grow despite unfair feedback.
In my next few posts, I’ll share with you more about these four challenges to feedback.
- Listen and learn.
As you receive feedback, consider the positive side of the coin. There’s always something to learn about yourself, and the person providing feedback is trying to help—not hurt—you. This attitude doesn’t come naturally. Work toward picturing a collective interest in making things better, which will help minimize any stigma.
Focusing on personal and organizational improvement can help you overcome resistance, despite any fears or anxieties. Negative feelings needn’t override your ability to learn from feedback. View feedback through the lens of excelling and improving.
It’s important to remember feedback’s purpose instead of retreating into defensive mode. It’s not about your character taking a hit. Try to grasp the feedback provider’s point of view, and recognize that it generally takes sincere concern to muster the courage to offer difficult feedback. Appreciating this will go a long way and set the stage for professional growth.
When assessing feedback, note that people say and interpret things differently. They use different verbiage and phrases. What’s heard may not be what’s meant. Asking questions helps achieve clarity. Taking sufficient time before you respond will afford an information-sharing dialogue. You’ll be rewarded with a new perspective, some of the best learning you can receive. There may be something you’re ready to see now that you couldn’t accept in the past.
Great listening skills will seldom let you down, suggest consultants Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston in Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders (Stanford Business Books, 2015).
Listening well permits you to engage your people and learn from them. Some of this learning comes in the form of feedback. Listening builds trust and helps you lead by example.
In summary, you can learn a lot from what’s right in the feedback you receive.