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How to master the science and skill of learning from feedback

November 11, 2014

Everyone just loves to be told where they need to improve, right? Actually, no. Studies show that it’s entirely normal to feel some level of anxiety when it comes to receiving feedback. But hearing how you and your work are perceived need not be a deflating experience. In fact, highly effective leaders are often more skillful at receiving and capitalizing on feedback than others.

So, what’s their secret?

Well, the simple truth is there’s a “right way” and a “wrong way” to receive feedback. And the “wrong way” is usually triggered by the natural anxiety that occurs when a boss or colleague offers feedback or constructive criticism. It’s not uncommon for people to feel afraid, defensive, and attacked when faced with feedback, but nothing good can come from those feelings. In fact, the tension and anxiety can narrow your view and prevent you from understanding subtle elements of the feedback. Being in “fight or flight” mode will activate your body, but, you will lose some of your intelligence.

The “right way” to receive feedback is simply first to be open-minded. Now forgive me for quoting Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, but he makes the point beautifully when he writes, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Since few things can penetrate the closed mind of an “expert,” we can only really learn and grow when we look on the world and ourselves with the openness of a beginner. This is often easier said than done; however, there are certain tips and techniques you can use to improve your feedback-receiving skills.

  • The first thing to remember is that any feedback is always based on the perceptions of the person delivering the feedback, and that perceptions are not the same as judgments.
  • Another important fact to remember is that in most cases, the feedback you’re receiving is a direct reaction to your work behavior and not who you are as a person. This is a subtle but important distinction as it’s much, much easier to address/change a behavior than it is to address/change your identity.
  • Once you truly look on the feedback as an efficient way to learn more about yourself and improve in your career, the best thing you can do is ask questions.

When I work with clients I encourage them to ask the following questions with the requisite beginner’s mind:

How am I actually perceived by this person in the workplace?

You may agree or disagree with the perception but it’s critical to have that knowledge so you can have a better understanding of yourself and the person delivering your feedback. It’s hard to change people, but you can play an active role in changing perceptions if you adjust your behavior accordingly.

What does this person really mean to me and my career?

We can learn from all feedback, but the reality is that some feedback is more important than others. Receiving feedback from across the organization allows you to learn about yourself as well as really think about not only what the person is saying but also who is saying it. And the obvious fact is that the feedback you get from a trusted boss who has a vested interest in your success may be more helpful than feedback you may receive from anonymous surveys or other colleagues in the organization. And this brings us to the last key question.

Do you really need to do anything with the feedback?

Giving and receiving feedback is a process. Sometimes, skillful feedback delivered by a caring colleague is the crucial ingredient that leads to career-improving behavior change. But there’s no guarantee that all feedback you receive will have the same effect—or even be accurate or helpful. And while it’s always important to approach feedback with a “beginner’s mind” that doesn’t mean you have to be naïve. Be open to what people have to say, and be smart about what you do with the information.

So, let’s hear it. How do you stay open to “constructive criticism”? Have you been helped by the feedback you’ve received? Or do you have a feedback horror story to share?

Click here to learn more about receiving and giving feedback.


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