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To Give Better Feedback, You Must Fully Understand the Agony of Receiving It

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Smart people love talking about how to give feedback. But not many talk about how to receive it.

No matter how profoundly we might embrace concepts like radical transparency, hearing “Your presentation missed the mark,” or worse, is never a comfortable moment.

As animals wired for self-defense, our knee-jerk reaction is to reject hard feedback. And then we might go through something resembling the five stages of grief. Anger (“He’s crazy, my presentation rocked!”) spirals into denial (“Who is he to speak, his emails are gibberish!”) and then perhaps some bargaining (“Oh god, he’s right; please don’t let me get fired tomorrow”) followed by some wallowing if not actual depression.

The fifth and final stage, of course, is acceptance, and there’s a reason it takes us so long to get there.

Harvard Law School lecturer Sheila Heen, a co-leader of Harvard’s Negotiation Project and co-founder of Triad Consulting Group, has devoted much of her career to understanding why accepting feedback is so difficult, and how to internalize it with more self-awareness and objectivity. Along with Douglas Stone, Heen co-authored two New York Times Bestsellers, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (2000), and Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Even When It’s Off-Base, Unfair, Poorly Delivered and Frankly, You’re Not in the Mood) (2014).

Quartz At Work talked with Heen to find out why receiving feedback is so hard, whether everyone has the capacity for it, and how each of us can get better at it. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Quartz At Work: Feedback comes in many forms. What is your definition of it, and how can we recognize when it’s being given to us?

Sheila Heen: The word feedback immediately makes people think about performance reviews, and those are included of course, but when we talk about feedback we really mean all of the information available to you about yourself everyday. A lot of that information is informal rather than formal, it’s unspoken, instead of direct. Examples of indirect feedback and unspoken feedback can be facial expressions; it can be a look someone gives you in a meeting; it can be when you hear through the grapevine that someone was upset by the way you handled things; it can be the fact that I didn’t respond to an email.

Part of what’s hard about feedback is figuring out whether something is feedback or not. Feedback is your relationship with the world and the world’s relationship with you, it’s the way that you’re impacting other people, for better or worse. So it’s all around you—the question is just whether you’re paying attention to it.

Usually when we think about feedback at work or in relationships, we assume that the feedback giver is in charge. However, in Thanks for the Feedback you argue that it’s the receiver who actually controls the feedback conversation, and the success of the feedback. Why?

Receiving feedback is a distinct leadership skill. Learning this took us about 10 years of teaching people how to give feedback, and noticing that this instruction actually wasn’t solving the problem—people were still struggling in their feedback conversations. For us, that was a head-slapping moment. We realized in any exchange of feedback, it’s actually the receiver who is in charge, because they’re the one who decides what to listen to and how to make sense of it.

If you can get good at it, you can accelerate your own learning and you can learn from anybody; you don’t have to wait for the right mentor to show up, and you don’t have to wait until someone decides that they have time to give you some feedback. You can learn feedback-receiving skills so that you can learn even from givers who are terrible at it, and who don’t have time for it. That’s a very empowering idea.

[But] the more senior you get in an organization, fewer and fewer people are willing to give you candid coaching. The irony is that you’re having a bigger and bigger impact on everyone else in the business, but fewer and fewer people are willing to help you understand that impact, or improve it, or maximize it, for fear of getting fired.

A lot of us wish we’d get a lot more feedback from our employers, even if we often don’t process it effectively. Why is that?

Part of it is we feel incredibly conflicted about feedback. We know that it’s supposed to be a gift, and long afterwards we can be very grateful for it. But in the moment, feedback can be one of the most painful experiences.

This is partly because of these two core, human needs that start off at cross-purposes with each other: On one hand, we actually do want to learn and grow. That’s a big piece of happiness research, and it’s very satisfying. But we also want to be accepted and respected and loved just the way we are now. So when people want us to change it somehow, it suggests that how I am now is not great or not cool. Understanding those two things really helped me understand my conflicted relationship with feedback, and why it doesn’t always feel like a gift.

As human beings we’re wired to protect ourselves. In the face of feedback we’re really good at wrong-spotting, because if I can figure out what’s wrong about the feedback when it’s incoming, then I can safely set it aside and relax and go on with my life. So we’re scanning for whether the feedback is a good idea, whether the giver understands the situation, whether I trust them, whether they know what they’re talking about. We judge when, how, and where they gave the feedback, and if that was inappropriate or appropriate, helpful or unhelpful. We’re looking for what’s wrong with it because that gets us off the hook. If I can find what’s wrong with the feedback, I can reject it.

The problem is that there’s always something wrong with every piece of feedback. And while a piece of feedback could be 90% wrong, that last 10% might be just what I need to start thinking about.

People think they have tons of unique reasons for why they don’t receive feedback well. But after analyzing feedback responses worldwide, you realized we all experience the same three basic feedback triggers. What are they?

First, there are truth triggers, which is when we ask, is this good or bad advice? It’s really evaluating the feedback itself for accuracy, fairness, balance, etc.

As the receiver, we can ask questions that are either looking backward, so to understand where is this feedback coming from, or looking forward to understand where the feedback is going to. We need to say, “Something happened that prompted you to say this to me. Help me understand what happened, looking backwards in time?” And looking forward, we need to ask questions like, “Assume that I agree I should be more proactive and I take your advice, what would I do differently?” Sometimes forward-looking questions are a bit easier for us to hear or talk about if we’re feeling particularly defensive.

Then there are relationship triggers, which have everything to do with who gave us the feedback: Do I like them? Do I trust them? Do I want to be like them? Because all feedback lives in that relationship between the giver and the receiver. Relationship triggers, which include where and when someone gave feedback to me, is probably the most common reaction that we hear.

What’s so interesting about relationship triggers is that, first of all, in some ways we shouldn’t care who the source is—it’s either good advice or bad advice, there’s either something valuable in it for us, or there’s not. But it’s really tempting to say, “I will only take feedback that I trust, from people who have earned it, or people who really know what they’re talking about.” If that’s my narrow band of acceptable feedback givers, I’m missing out on a huge amount of potential learning.

And then there are identity triggers, which have to do with the questions, “What’s the story that I tell myself about who I am?” and “Does this feedback challenge that story?” This is related to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindsets. Is this feedback telling me I’m a good person or a bad person? Competent or incompetent? If we are in a fixed mindset, all feedback is a verdict on whether we measure up or we don’t, so the feedback is usually very threatening. Conversely, those with growth mindsets see feedback as information that just helps me know what I need to work on next.

If we choose to, we can consciously cultivate a growth mindset. One of the most powerful ways to do that is to work hard to hear ambiguous feedback as coaching rather than as evaluation. It’s possible that when someone says, “speak up at meetings,” they are really meaning to say, “I hope you know that you don’t have any charisma and never will.” But it’s also possible, and much more likely, that they are merely trying to coach us toward improvement. We can choose to hear the feedback either way.

If you know you default toward having a fixed mindset, then you simply have to fight the default. You have to ask yourself, “Is this feedback intended as coaching or evaluation, and in any case, which is likely to be more useful to me?” In most causal situations—by casual I mean not related to a performance review—feedback really is meant as coaching.

Importantly, being in a growth mindset doesn’t mean that feedback isn’t painful—sometimes it is, because, you know, I certainly thought I was further along on this skill, and it’s quite upsetting to realize I still have to work on it.

So we all have to come to terms with the idea that we have blind spots?

That’s right. If you need a really obvious example of your blind spots, think about your face: The only person’s face in the meeting that you can’t see is your own. There are all sorts of information that other people have about us—tone of voice, verbal habits—that we can’t see ourselves. So we actually need other people in order to see ourselves accurately and to more fully understand the impact that we have on other people.

Can we trust the people we work with to give us an accurate picture?

The idea of supportive mirrors and honest mirrors is extremely helpful in thinking about this. When we get a particularly upsetting piece of feedback, we go call someone or get together with someone after work who we are pretty sure likes us and we vent, right? We say, “Can you believe what happened to me? He’s worse at this than I am! It’s totally unfair, he doesn’t understand what I do!” We do all of the wrong-spotting about the feedback we’ve received, and we ask our friends to be “supportive mirrors,” and to join us in that wrong-spotting over a glass of wine (or two).

Supportive mirrors show you what you look like at your best, in a flattering light, with good hair. And implicitly, when our friends come to us upset, we know that what they need from us is to join them. We listen and we tell them why they’re great and wonderful, and we say, “Don’t listen to that feedback.”

Supportive mirrors are important, particularly when the feedback we’ve been given feels to us like the whole story of who we are. Our friends can actually help us dismantle this distortion, help us see that we are great, and say, “You’re doing 99 things well right now, you’re awesome, get a little perspective, right now get that this is just one thing.” This distortion management helps us see the feedback at actual size again.

But the danger is that we stop there. And that we don’t then ask or invite our friends to be honest mirrors when we’re ready for it. An honest mirror shows you what you look like right now, when maybe you’re not at your best. And it turns the question from “What’s wrong with the feedback?” to “Okay, now help me see, is there anything that might be right about this feedback?” Our friends won’t be honest mirrors unless we invite them to, and even if they do, sometimes we still feel betrayed, like whose side are you on, anyway?

But our friends, including close professional colleagues, are actually in a good place to help us see what we could learn when it’s hard to see ourselves.

Those two questions—what’s wrong with the feedback, and is there anything right about it—should always live in tandem.

You present the concept of “switchtracking” as one of the primary struggles we experience when we’re receiving feedback. What is that?

Switchtracking is one of the most common problems in feedback conversations. It happens when the person offering a piece of feedback gets a response from the receiver, and the response is actually a different topic. It’s common for the two people not to realize that they’re talking past each other, because they continue in their own conversations—the feedback giver is still in their conversation, and the feedback receiver is still talking about something different.

When we were working on this chapter, I was picking up my son, who was in high school at the time, after practice. Periodically I would show up in a bad mood and he would get in the car and say, “You’re late.” My immediate reaction was: “Don’t talk to me that way.” From my point of view, that is the topic of the conversation—the most important thing to talk about is how you are talking to your mother, and whether you appreciate that I had to leave something I was in the middle of to come get you. But that’s not his topic. His topic is that I was late, and that is true, and you know he’s been waiting in the cold, and he has homework to do. And this went on for like a month before I suddenly realized that I was switchtracking on him.

In feedback conversations that is super common, but we don’t realize that it is happening, and this often has to do with relationship triggers: “Really, you’re telling me this on a Friday, before I go on vacation?” I’m changing the topic to how you’re giving me the feedback, to when you’re giving it to me, rather than what we are talking about, which is what you’re trying to tell me. Once you know about switchtracking, you begin to see it everywhere. It’s kind of amazing.

Is there any power dynamic involved in switchtracking? For example, even if I notice that my boss switchtracks our conversation, it may feel uncomfortable to point that out explicitly.

In power relationships, often what you get is silent switchtracking. So the subordinate is talking back in their head, and the boss just doesn’t know that they’re in a totally different conversation. So the boss thinks, “I said my piece, they heard it, we moved on,” but the subordinate thinks, “You said your piece, it was stupid, I didn’t listen to it, then we moved on.”

And this gets to our relationships systems, in which we each think the other person is the problem. So yes, the switchtracking conversation can sound awkward, but it doesn’t need to—as long as you’re able to “signpost” the conversation.

And what do you mean by signposting?

Once you notice a conversation is switchtracking, you can signpost by saying, for example, “Okay. So it sounds like we have at least two things to talk about. One is what you are saying, which is that I missed this deadline, or that I made a comment that felt undermining to you. That is important. And the second thing that we should also talk about is how we prepared for that meeting, because I do think that contributed to the problem, and I felt frustrated by it.” Just name the two topics.

With my son, I can say, “One thing we definitely need to talk about is that I am late, and this isn’t the first time, and it impacts you. And the other thing we need to talk about is how are you talking to me, and whether you’re appreciating the hoops that I’m jumping through to even get here at all.”

If you get into a fight, spoken or unspoken, about who’s going to win—it’s not going to work. The other person is going to instinctively resist, because their topic is the most important from their point of view. But if you can say, look, there are two topics, one from each of us, and we probably need to talk about both, the other person will think, okay, as long as my issue is in there, I’m fine. It’s useful to notice the separate issues because otherwise we just perceive ourselves getting further and further apart, having two separate conversations.

Are there certain people in an organization that are most difficult to hear feedback from, like your boss, or a teammate, or a mentee?

One of the traps we fall into is that we believe the feedback we need is supposed to come from one specific person, and if that person is terrible at it, or doesn’t have the time, or just doesn’t really know what you do every day, then you feel stuck. But you’re not stuck at all; you’ve got people all around you who are actually better placed in many cases to offer suggestions and coaching.

The people that you’re working shoulder-to-shoulder with are very aware of what they’d like you to do differently. And your direct reports are also. I sometimes tell leaders, if you don’t know what you should be working on as a leader, everyone else knows—they have a secret list that they pass around of the things they wish you would change, the things that make it harder to do their jobs. But you have to ask them. They’re otherwise not going to tell you because they don’t want to jeopardize their relationship with you.

Why are some people better than others at receiving feedback?

Part of the reason people are differently good at receiving hard feedback is genetic—it’s the luck of the draw, the same way something like height or eye color is.

The good news for those of us with less-than-great wiring is that some portion (around 40%) of all of this is within our control, and relates in particular to how we tell the story of the feedback—what meaning we give it.

Imagine we get this feedback from our supervisor: “You forgot to respond to the client yesterday. Can you make sure to contact them first thing today? This particular client expects an unusually high level of responsiveness.” From that, we tell this story: “My supervisor has it out for me. He knows I was going to get back to the client this morning, but he just wants to make sure I know he’s unhappy with me. He tries to undermine my confidence at every opportunity.” So that entire story has been added—it’s a guess and could have elements of truth or could be totally wrong. But to the receiver it just feels like “the truth.”

The better we understand our own tendencies, as well as the tendencies of those we live and work with, the better able we will be to interact well with them in terms of giving and receiving feedback that is not just honest, but also useful.

What’s a good, practical tip for those of us who aren’t naturally blessed with feedback-receiving abilities?

Sometimes people come to us and they say, “I’m going to have this really difficult conversation and my goal is that I do not want to cry,” or yell, or whatever the emotional behavior is. And over the years of coaching people on things like that, the advice that seems to work is actually a little counterintuitive, which is not to hold the feelings in, or buckle them down more tightly, but instead just name them calmly. Just verbalizing, “that’s really disappointing to hear,” or, “that’s certainly not the way that I wanted to be perceived,” actually helps you physiologically calm down a little bit.

It’s totally counterintuitive, but there’s actually a big distinction between describing or naming emotions, and being emotional. And we often become emotional, our emotions leak out in our volume, tone, and behavior, because we’re not naming our emotions.

And what happens when, despite receiving the feedback well, you just don’t agree with what the person is saying?

There are three different kinds of feedback boundaries we can set in these situations. The most innocuous is to give yourself time to digest, then go back and say to the giver, “I’ve thought a lot about the feedback you gave me last week, and I wanted to close the loop to let you know why I’m not going to follow your advice.” That’s the approach we often skip, out of frustration or fear of the giver. But not closing the loop makes the giver feel like you don’t care enough to follow their advice. Being transparent about why you’re not following their feedback can save your relationship down the line.

The second type of feedback boundary lets the giver know their feedback is unacceptable. For example: “I’m well aware that you don’t like my spouse, but you detailing all of the ways in which you don’t like him every time we see each other is not helpful.” So on this front we’re not going to agree, and that’s okay, but you clarify that you need the giver to keep their comments and perspectives to themselves, because it’s hurting your relationship.

And the third type of boundary is saying: “If you can’t keep your views to yourself, then I can’t stay in this relationship in this form,” whatever that may mean. It might mean we’re not staying with you when we come for the holidays, or it might mean I need to work with a different boss.

It’s also important for receivers to know they do not always have to be open to as much feedback as anyone wants to give them, because if it’s undermining your self-confidence or your ability to function in the world that you’re in, then it’s not helpful. Sometimes we have relationships where it’s just a constant barrage of helpful little tips or criticism, and in those cases it’s important to stick up for yourself to keep your relationship healthy, or opt out of it. Sometimes we need to say: “More coaching right now is not going to help me, I need to just work on what I have from the feedback I’ve gotten so far,” or, “I’m being evaluated every single minute; just give me a little bit of space to digest what I’m working on, and then I will be ready for the next round.”

That’s actually a healthy response, to feel and say that.

In a professional relationship, is there an optimal time to share how you respond to feedback, or what types of feedback you prefer?

Ideally, feedback is an ongoing conversation. It’s a relationship, not a meeting, and too often it’s treated like a meeting. What I mean by that is, too often, the “feedback” part of our relationship is when we have that performance review that gets put on the calendar at the end of the year. But if I find out in December that you wish I had done something differently last February, then I’m frustrated that you didn’t tell me the whole thing earlier.

This regularity is particularly important for trust building. Often, we need to know that our colleagues appreciate the things that we are doing everyday, and we need to be hearing that in order for us to be receptive to coaching.

I tend to encourage people and leaders this way: When you have a new team member or relationship, just spent five minutes saying, “Hey, as we work together we’re going to have thoughts and suggestions for each other. I just want you to know it is helpful for me to get feedback in this manner, or via this channel.” Explain, for example, “If you put feedback in an email, that’s totally fine with me,” or, “It’s harder for me to get feedback through email, just pick the phone and tell it to me.” It doesn’t need to be, “Here’s everything to know about me.” Just share a couple of requests or suggestions so they know that you want feedback, and have some idea of how to deliver it.

People think that this whole “feedback thing” has to take a whole lot of time, when in the best working relationships, where people really do learn and grow and support each other, feedback is just woven into their workflow a few minutes at a time.

This approach makes the whole concept of feedback a lot less intimidating, as it’s just one element of a complex and healthy relationship.

Exactly. We teach the concept of “one thing.” So often, we ask broad questions like “do you have any feedback for me,” to which people will say either “I don’t know,” or “you’re great!” Instead, we should say, “Hey, what’s one thing,” then insert whatever context makes sense. For example, “What’s one thing that I’m doing, or failing to do, that’s getting in the way of our productivity?” The exchange takes all of four or five minutes, but primes your relationship for ongoing, honest communication that will ensure you, and your colleagues, are continually collaborating and improving.

Ultimately, being a good receiver does not mean agreeing or disagreeing with feedback, taking it or not taking it. It means that you actively work to better understand what the giver is telling you, and what they want you to change. You have to get past the fact that you don’t like how they’re speaking, or don’t want to be like them, and realize that regardless, you still might have something to learn.

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