Once you’ve been working for a while, you’ll have been through many feedback exercises, and I’m no different in that respect. Solicited or unsolicited, formal or informal, developmental or critical… Many organisations require ‘360 degree’ input, from those below you, at the same level as you, and above you, aiming for a holistic perspective. And, there’s also the feedback we get on a daily basis, reactions from the audience to our presentations, smiles or frowns in the corridors, body language in meetings, responses to our emails… Lots of input if we’re open to it, but it can be overwhelming. What’s a healthy way to approach feedback?
When we actively seek input from others and ask for their advice, it makes us feel collaborative, humble and connected with them. Indeed, we strongly suggest gathering feedback as part of preparing for your performance appraisal as it provides supporting evidence for your conversation with your manager, including reactions from customers, praise from colleagues or suggestions for improvements.
It is natural that a wide range of views will contain conflicting responses too, partly because different people see you in different situations and they each have their own preferences – more on this later. The key is in assessing which is ‘outlier’ feedback and which are common threads that require attention from you.
For example, I recall how years ago one of my team told me that I’d regularly ask him for feedback, but then wouldn’t do what he suggested. I was taken aback, believing that my requests for input were genuine. Upon reflection, I realised that he was talking about how he felt that I should come into work early like him as well as greet him cheerily to get the day off to a good start. I’m so not a morning person, so a ‘good start’ for me is to ease slowly into the day, warming up by midmorning aided by caffeine. I don’t see the morning commute as a joyous experience nor bound into the office eager to attack my to-do list. He saw this as disrespectful to him though, and once suggested that when the clocks shifted for daylight savings time, I should use that as an opportunity to come into work earlier until the clocks shifted again! The night owls among you will attest how impossible cheery mornings are for us.
Read more to see why feedback isn’t actually about you, why it is still incredibly important, and who to listen most intently to.
Thoughts and Feelings
As social creatures by our very nature, we’re responsive to others’ thoughts and feelings, modifying our behaviour towards accepted norms. Some people, the highly intuitive types, have a heightened awareness of others’ reactions. They watch social cues and can use these to adapt suavely to the situation. They can speedily pick up on body language, tones of voice, emotions and even language used, and can assess who is engaged or not, who feels threatened, who is in a power position and so on. And, sometimes these subtle cues can provide strategically useful information on how to navigate the interaction successfully. Others’ feelings and reactions can, however, also be incredibly distracting, providing way too much input that can bump you off course because you’re reading too much into the situation.
We need to find a happy medium, where we can savour praise without being driven by or depending on it, and where we can incorporate criticism when it is useful without being immobilised by it. In order to reach our potential, pursue our unique paths, innovate, or propose controversial ideas, we need to know how to respond to both praise and criticism in ways that propel us forward.
Feedback isn’t about you
A particularly useful approach is to keep top of mind that feedback tells you only about the person giving the feedback i.e. it doesn’t actually tell you about you! It gives us facts about the preferences and opinions of those providing the feedback, including what’s important to them and what they need from you. It can’t tell us about our worthiness or merit. When we internalise this, it frees us: we’re free to seek, gather and incorporate feedback into our work.
When you receive feedback – negative or positive – remember that the feedback doesn’t tell you about you, it tells you about the people giving the feedback. Ask yourself, What does this tell me about the people giving the feedback? What – if anything – does this tell me about the preferences and priorities of the people I’m trying to reach? What can this teach me about how to do my work most effectively?”
Yet, feedback is wildly important
While feedback isn’t about you and your own value, it very definitely is for you: it tells us whether we are reaching the people we need to reach. Are we engaging the people we wish to engage? Are we having the impact we intend? Is our messaging resonating for our desired audience? Are we influencing those we want to influence?
When we look at feedback we receive through this lens, we can approach it more rationally and with curiosity. We can calmly reflect on what this useful, emotionally neutral, data is telling us. And, we can apply any feedback that significantly enriches our work or is strategically useful and let the rest go.
Tara Mohr relates the following example from her early career: “When I went into the work world, I began noticing that many of the most effective leaders and most recognised luminaries in my field would receive lots of thoughtful feedback and criticism on their plans, but often, they’d prioritise speed, moving ahead, or just making their lives easier by not incorporating the feedback. It shocked me at first… but it often turned out to be very effective: The plans or work products those leaders had were good enough without the changes others recommended – good enough both to achieve the aims of the specific project and to significantly advance their careers. Much of the feedback you’ll receive is not important to integrate into your work… The key here is to always be asking, What feedback do I need to incorporate in order to be effective in reaching my aims? And what feedback really won’t impact my effectiveness and is okay to ignore?”
Brene Brown warns that “if you’re going to show up and be seen, there is only one guarantee... If you’re going to go in the arena, and spend any time in there whatsoever, especially if you’re committing to creating in your life, you will get your **** kicked… If courage is a value that we hold, this is a consequence. You can’t avoid it.” We need to learn to see criticism as a consequence of doing meaningful work, rather than seeing it as a sign of failure or personal worthlessness.
Whenever we share controversial ideas, act as change agents, or pursue our own unique paths to fulfilment, we expose ourselves to praise and criticism. Others may not understand, appreciate or applaud our choices – they may even actively resist. But, in order to reach our potential, we must seek feedback (in various forms) from those we are aiming to reach, seeing it as information on their preferences and priorities, and incorporate that which helps us achieve our aims.
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