Feedback is Good (Even When it Feels So Bad)

What does “Performance Feedback” mean to you?  A painful waste of time, or a great opportunity? Both have been said about the same experience. How? I’ve learned it is possible to find value in even the most poorly delivered evaluation, no matter where it comes from. We can all process feedback so we can benefit from it rather than reject critical comments.

When I started facilitating workshops, my co-facilitator and I would distribute feedback forms and ask participants to tell us what their experience was like. Whenever I collected the sheets, my attention was pulled by a section where my performance was scored against my partner’s.

I knew it would cause me pain (and wasn’t very fair), but I craved a message that I was better than my partner had been. No matter how non-competitive I might believe myself to be, if you put me in a ratings race with anyone, I want to win.

My typically higher scores in “preparation” didn’t satisfy my craving. I studied the ratings until I proved to myself that my partner had won the day.

Why would anybody listen to me? I’d think. I’ll never achieve anything. While I indulged in this negative thinking, my productivity and sociability dropped away. But what’s the alternative?

Cultivate curiosity about what people are ‘reading’ from you

In their new book, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen advocate for developing skills in learning from feedback “even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and, frankly, you’re not in the mood.” Off base or unfair? Are they suggesting you change everything that others want you to change?

No, but everything you do communicates something about you, and your message will have an audience. Feedback lets you know what your “audience” is receiving. Is the information they are receiving (about either your content or about yourself) the information you want to convey? The only way you’ll ever know is by attending to feedback and learning how to interpret the clues you receive.

Start where you are--wired for taking feedback the way you do

Each of us is wired to take feedback in our own particular way. It’s not unusual for feedback to knock you off your game if :

  • You feel it isn’t true (Truth)
  • The person delivering it is the wrong person to say that (Relationship), or
  • The feedback threatens your understanding of who you are (Identity)

This is where the workshop evaluations hit me the hardest: my sense of myself as a “really good facilitator.”

You will respond to feedback in your own signature way, characterized by how you feel and think generally and how you process feedback in particular. I was predisposed to dismiss positive feedback and to take negative feedback hard. I was also wired to recover more slowly from those hard hits.

Others might get a big boost from small compliments but aren’t so bothered by criticism. Their default wiring might mean they are resistant to teaching or change because they don’t take constructive criticism seriously enough.

Once you know your default wiring, you can predict and manage your reactions and then develop better skills for receiving and interpreting feedback.

I want to learn from your feedback, AND I want to be accepted for who I am

Grant yourself space to seek improvement

Fortunately I discovered a path away from the darkness of comparison and into a healthier place. As it turns out, my strategy was in line with recommendations in Thanks for the Feedback.

I found a way to focus on my own numbers and compare them to previous feedback. Finally, the drug-like attraction of comparing myself to others eased. My anxiety shifted to interest in my own development. Over time I saw my numbers improving relative to my earlier scores. And, I learned to trust myself instead of craving external validation as my facilitation skills improved.

You can set the stage for new growth and success by:

  1. Cultivating curiosity about what people are reading from you,
  2. Accepting and becoming familiar with your default settings for receiving feedback (your wiring), and
  3. Granting yourself permission to have room for improvement.

You do not have to choose between the joy of being accepted and the challenge of learning from feedback. Both are possible together. Loving yourself enough to accept feedback without fear is a wonderful practice.

"I want to learn from your feedback" image courtesy of Amy Kay Watson and Career Leadership Alignment.