A few years back during my year-end review I received some troubling feedback about my ability to take feedback. Specifically, that I don’t take feedback well. This was paralyzing. How do you respond? You can’t argue, question, or contest it because that only reinforces the flaw further.
What did I do? I agreed and then provided situational excuses. That particular year had been rough and full of change—three manager changes, new CMO and CEO leadership, and my first layoff survival. I’d become defensive of my work after constantly selling my worth to the new, incoming manager.
While I don’t want to minimize the stress and uncertainty of the situation at the time, none of that is an excuse for my reaction to feedback. We all find ourselves in unfavorable circumstances at some point during our careers. We have to learn to successfully navigate change, and we have to master the art of taking feedback.
Master the art of taking feedback? Yes, you heard me right. There are endless sources of advice for managers to learn how to give better feedback. But how can we, as employees, best absorb feedback that is critical to our personal and professional development?
The feedback that I don’t take feedback well is always lingering in the back of my mind. I am still a work in progress, and I am constantly curious and open to ways to improve. As I look back, I realize I took these practical steps to identify the source of the problem and then make significant changes in my attitude, approach, and mindset:
1. Study your own behavior
Become aware of your personality, understand your reaction to feedback, and ask what emotions are driving the response. I am a type A, perfectionist, overachiever, people pleaser that feels overwhelmingly disappointed in myself when I’ve failed to exceed expectations. I put my heart and soul into my work. When I reflect back, I now understand that my negative and defensive response to feedback stems from my own fear of failure. Once you understand the emotions behind your behavior, take on the difficult step 2.
2. Don’t take feedback personally
Your work is an output, it is a solution, it is a product, it is a thing. It is not a reflection of your character. In the past, if my manager wasn’t 100% thrilled with my work, my defense sounded something like, “well, I intended for this to…” or “I was just trying to show…” Of course you intended to do your best work and produce an exceptional solution. No one is questioning your intent. Your feedback-giver is criticizing the outcome and offering guidance for improvement. Keep your intent, change the output.
3. Consider your audience
Who is delivering the critical feedback to you? Is it coming from a manager or leader that you value? If yes, dig deeper and ask more questions to fully understand the feedback and take action. Unfortunately, only about 25% of people feel they have a boss with integrity—someone you trust and who is capable of delivering feedback that challenges directly while caring personally. If you find yourself in the 75%, you may have to get creative and ask open ended questions to get at the root of the feedback in order to derive value from it, or try moving to step 4 to help your manager give the feedback you need. If the person giving feedback isn’t someone you trust and is not a stakeholder of your work, it is ok to say politely “thanks for the insight”, and get a second opinion from another source.
4. Tell your manager what you need
Managers aren’t perfect and are continuously learning, too. Every employee has different motivations and learning styles. Help a boss out—speak up with what you need. Looking back, I wish I would have asked my manager to point out, immediately, the next time I don’t take feedback well so that I could see it. Ask your manager to be more direct with you, to provide instant feedback, to save praise or criticism for a 1:1 instead of the team meeting. Ask her to make your 1:1s a lunch meeting to make giving and receiving feedback a little more comfortable. Your boss will appreciate the effort.
5. Flip your feedback expectations
Go into every meeting expecting feedback, wanting feedback, looking for feedback. This is subtle and important. The next time you are reviewing your work or a project with your manager, are you going into it hoping he or she says, “everything looks great, good job!”? Or are you anticipating suggestions for changes and improvements? The simple shift in expectations completely changes your ability to consume feedback.
6. Adopt a design thinking approach
Empathize. Define. Ideate. Prototype. Test. A design thinking mindset and approach allows you to let go of your work in the best way imaginable. Begin your work with empathy for the consumer of your work. It’s not personal, it’s not about “you” anymore. You’re designing for someone else. This also makes it easier to “blow up” your work if you get to an end result that receives critical or negative feedback. Your work is not your baby. Ideate, build, test, change, test again, make more changes, blow it up, start over, etc. Starting small and gathering feedback earlier in the process will lead you to better outcomes and train you to crave feedback.
Beware: opening the doors to feedback will be addictive. Even when I receive a “this looks great, Nicole. Good job!” I ask “how could it be better?” Push for more feedback instead of retreating or deflecting. The act of asking for feedback, early and often, signals that you are open and receptive while creating a feedback cycle that grows and improves over time. It is the gift that keeps on giving.