A version of this post now appears as a chapter of the book Working with Stress and Fear: Your Guide to Feeling it and Rocking the Job Anyway available on Kindle at Amazon.com.
A feedback-rich environment is a hallmark of healthy, high-performance teams, and feedback is one way a leader can increase clarity in her communications, by listening and observing and then feeding back to her followers what is being seen and heard. However, many people feel nervous about receiving feedback, and that sense that feedback is bad news shuts down the whole process.
If someone has enough experiences of feedback trauma, something else develops: a reluctance to hear even “positive” feedback, making them a feedback “zero”–meaning “I want zero feedback!”
The attempt some might make at seeking permission: “Would you be open to some feedback?” can cause an eye twitch to a feedback zero. “No,” they might cringe, “I don’t want to be shamed, but now I know you’re holding something back, and I can’t go on relating to you until we get this Band-Aid ripped off–give it to me straight.”
Appreciation and even empathetic feedback offered to someone with this expectation of horror won’t be well received at all.
So how can you go from feedback zero to feedback hero?
Practice a growth mindset
Carol Dweck wrote a book called Mindset. This is worth getting and reading if you have trouble receiving feedback. She says people have two main mindsets: a “fixed mindset,” which means the person believes they are hard-wired with certain skills, talents, and abilities, vs. a “growth mindset,” wherein the person believes they can adapt and grow as life changes. (The book includes exercises for developing your growth mindset.)
Years ago when I worked in my first-ever feedback-rich environment, I went in with a fixed mindset, feeling a need to prove myself and confident that I could do so given the right opportunity. Within a short time I was receiving feedback that was intended to help me improve, but because of my fixed mindset I took this as debilitating criticism. I thought it meant horrible things for me and for my chosen career path.
Fortunately the team I was working with had seen this before, and they stuck it out with me, encouraging me to shift my perspective. At some point within the first three months in that job I experienced a transforming moment when I could begin to see that the feedback I was receiving wasn’t bad news. It was an invitation. Once I experienced this foreground-background shift (like a Hitchcockian widening-angle-zoom-in), I started for to grow and develop myself while I had this great opportunity.
The result? I came out a LOT better than when I went in! Heros grow.
Practice empathetic reflection
The book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg outlines a process for offering empathetic reflection to someone who is upset. Let’s say Betty made a mistake and George is angry and blaming her in a seriously judgmental way. Rosenberg suggests that Betty can respond with an “NVC” question like this:
“Are you angry because my action resulted in a serious inconvenience for you, and you need me to be aware of the impact it had on you?”
Responses like this are not part of our culture. Instead, when George is angry with Betty, he might feel compelled to unload his feedback on her in that instant, and Betty might reach with violence (feeling humiliated and attacking back) or with silence (feeling ashamed and withdrawing). In North American culture we are well versed in these reactions.
In the NVC question above, however, Betty is letting George know that she hears and understands him, but does not necessarily accept responsibility for how he feels.
(Note: If this seems to you like a useful skill to develop, I strongly suggest you find some practice partners. Help each other develop the skills. It also helps to connect with one of the Compassionate Communication Centers that have certified NVC facilitators to coach you through developing these skills.)
This is like the superpower of invulnerability. In real life you aren’t invulnerable, but you can (with practice) develop the ability to make those feedback bullets bounce right off of you instead of going right through you.
Practice receiving feedback
If receiving feedback is something that makes you flinch, you need practice receiving, and the best way to get practice is to ask for feedback.
Asking for feedback is fantastic because it puts you in control. You identify:
- who you want feedback from
- what kind of feedback you ask for
- what subject you want feedback about
Once you’ve set out the parameters, you can start small and build at the pace you’re ready for:
- who you want feedback from (choose people who are ‘safe’ at first)
- what kind of feedback you ask for (ask for positives first!)
- what subject you want feedback about (narrow it down to something you’re actually seeking improvement in first)
The beginner level of seeking feedback (first step away from “zero”) might mean asking your best friend to tell you what you did well in a practice session for a presentation you’ll be giving next week.
The superhero level of asking for feedback looks like this: The boss sits down with her team after a grueling town hall in which she got raked over the coals. She starts out by asking, “Okay, team–what did I do well and how can I be better next time?” She doesn’t just ask the question. She listens closely to every answer and writes down what she hears. She never argues with anyone. She asks questions for understanding. There’s no defensiveness–just a commitment to improvement. Later, she weighs each piece of feedback and decides whether or not she can use it. She makes the adjustments that make sense and lets the rest go.
Even if you are a total feedback zero today, you can become a superhero through practice, practice, practice.
If you engage with practices like these, you can become more resilient and not so easily taken down by the feedback of the ‘villain’ in your story. You can become better at giving feedback because you have empathy for the person you are speaking to. Your perspective can change to where you understand where people are coming from and what’s really going on. Your skills strengthen, your knowledge broadens, and your leadership becomes more nimble.
Able to leap tall buildings.
Career Leadership Alignment LLC offers coaching for adults in transition who want to have better engagement with their work lives and leaders who want to have a more powerful, positive impact.
Amy Kay Watson is a specialist in leadership development as well as cultural and personal transformation. Working with thousands of professionals across North America, Amy has helped individuals and companies re-think organizational culture while implementing effective change. She focuses on leadership, culture, and employee engagement.