The Art of Receiving Feedback

Recently I wrote about the importance of giving feedback to your direct reports and others—openly, candidly and in a way that’s actionable for them. I think 50% of the feedback equation rests on the side of managers, who have to be willing and skilled in giving it.  Today I want to share a few tips on the other 50% of the equation: how to ask for and receive feedback.  How you receive feedback helps set the tone for your whole team.

Ask for feedback more than once a year

It’s crucial for leaders to ask for feedback from the people around them on a consistent basis. Of course that includes your manager, but it also includes people on your team and your peers. Asking for feedback can be pretty simple. For example, at the end of a conversation you can simply say, ”Hey, I’d welcome any feedback you have about my leadership of the team…”  Or, “I want to make sure you know I’m really open to your feedback about how I am doing.  Any thoughts?”  Or, “I’d really appreciate your feedback about how you think things are going…”  For some other feedback questions see my post “Saving Your Job.”

Listen to the feedback with everything you’ve got

In his excellent book, In the Line of Fire, Jerry Weissman suggests that when you are being asked tough questions, you should imagine there is a bright red line in front of you.  The bright red line is, “Did I understand the question?”  If your answer is “No,” you never step over the line and start to respond.  The same is true when you listen to feedback.  Before you start responding or formulating a response ask yourself, “Did I fully understand the feedback?”  That’s your bright red line.  When you ask for feedback and someone starts talking, your job is to really hear them.  If you don’t like what you hear, or even if you do, you may be tempted to respond while they are still mid-thought. But then you aren’t listening.  So practice all of your good listening behaviors like making steady eye contact, putting away your smart phone, and paraphrasing back / asking if you’ve got it right.

Clarify the feedback

This a step that often gets missed. Because feedback conversations are frequently uncomfortable, people sometimes walk away from them without really understanding what the feedback is or what specific change in behavior is being requested.  They may be wary of asking for more information. But the plain truth is that many people, even many senior executives, need help articulating feedback in a way that is clear, granular and actionable. So when you ask for feedback, don’t assume the other person will be skilled in giving it.  You may need to ask follow-up questions. I recommend follow-ups like: “I’m not sure I totally understand yet. What more can you tell me about that?” Or, “I wonder if you can give me an example or two to help me make sure I really understand?”  Or, “I think I get what you are saying at a high-level; tell me more about how that shows up in my behavior? What do I say or do that gives you that impression?” When you ask follow-up questions, make sure that your tone is neutral or curious, not negative or defensive.

Say thank you

Express appreciation when someone gives you feedback. Usually feedback is given in the spirit of helpfulness, and giving feedback is tough–regardless of whether it comes from your boss, direct report or peer.  They are giving you a gift that is not always easy to give.  That’s one reason feedback conversations don’t happen as often as they ought to. So if someone takes the trouble to give you feedback, let them know you appreciate it.

Also, keep in mind that these tips also apply to positive feedback.  If someone thinks you did something well, it’s more helpful to you if you really understand why.

As Steve Jobs used to say, “One more thing…” In some situations, you may disagree with feedback. There may be extenuating circumstances that explain your behavior or make the feedback less relevant. Or you may just feel defensive, or that their perception is wrong.  My recommendation is, the more emotional you are about the feedback, the more important it is for you to give it some time before you respond. It may be that a response or an explanation from you is warranted, even helpful. But the more upset you are, the less skilled you will be sharing that. So be careful, and make sure you are in the right frame of mind to respond when you do.

For another perspective on receiving feedback, check out this Harvard Business Review article, “Finding the Coaching in Criticism.”