The Receiving End: Getting Better At Accepting Feedback

One of our core practices at LSI is assessment.

We assess individuals for a variety of purposes, typically with positive outcomes, such as hiring, advancement and leadership potential.

Part of the assessment process is giving feedback, so we have plenty of experience in that arena, too. Not surprisingly, some recipients take feedback better than others.  While a lot of development efforts focus on how to deliver feedback (with courage, clarity, empathy, etc.), less time is spent talking about what it’s like to be on the receiving end.

Most people have mixed feelings about receiving critical feedback, particularly when it’s not explicitly solicited.

On one hand, feedback gives us valuable insight into how we’re perceived by others.  This is a crucial mechanism to learn, grow, and advance.  Yet, feedback can challenge our desire for the world to love us just the way we are. This tension between wanting a developmental edge and needing to be accepted as-is makes it hard to receive feedback without some ambivalence.

The ideal feedback recipient is curious and empowered, and doesn’t feel threatened.  He assumes the observations are true (at least partially so) and suppresses his cynicism. He recognizes that he’s being assessed constantly, and that feedback is a unique opportunity to hear what people are actually thinking.

However, we all have tendencies that diverge from the ideal. To reflect on your personal tendencies think back to high school when you received a substandard grade.  Did you avoid your parents until the storm passed?  Or maybe you went on a tirade because of a perceived injustice at the hands of teacher with an axe to grind. Or perhaps, you felt like an utter failure that would never be accepted to a decent college.

Below are some of the commonly problematic reactions to feedback, and some advice about how to manage these tendencies.

 

Retreat: The recipient seeks to get through the conversation politely and rapidly, and return to the safety of their desk. They do more listening than conversing.

Advice: If your tendency is to grin and bear it, it is important that you try to find ways to understand the feedback at a deeper level. You’re probably accustomed to debriefing your feedback with a friend, spouse, or colleague with candor and rigor.  Try to apply a similar degree of intimacy and engagement during feedback session itself.


Defend: The recipient questions the validity of the observations, the credibility of the messenger, or the relevance. The conversation can become confrontational rather than constructive.

Advice: If your response to feedback is, “You’ve got me all wrong,” then it is unlikely that you’ll benefit from any of the messages being conveyed.  Disconnect the linkage between who’s delivering the feedback, and what the actual message is. When receiving feedback, it’s best to assume it’s true, whether it feels valid or not. There’s power in accountability – if it’s your fault, then you can actually fix it. If you simply blame others, you’re rendered powerless to control the situation.


Deflate: The recipient is visibly saddened, distraught, or demotivated. They become a victim and the messenger is the aggressor.

Advice: If you struggle to manage your emotions when receiving feedback, it is important that you develop a tolerance for the practice.  Don’t wait for broad, sweeping feedback, like annual performance reviews or 360s that beg the question, “How did I do?”  Instead, proactively solicit critical feedback from a variety of sources throughout the year. Get familiar with the themes and language of development, so that it doesn’t feel like judgment.


 

Receiving critical feedback is seldom easy or fun.  If you take pride in your work, it’s hard to accept that there’s room for improvement.  However, in my experience the feedback itself is rarely memorable, but the way it’s received is what counts most.

 

- Aaron Weiss -

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