Do you struggle to receive people’s feedback?  If you find yourself trying to avoid these opportunities, bracing yourself for what might you hear, or preparing a long list of reasons to dismiss what you’re being told, then you’re in good company.  While workplaces have increasingly invested considerable resources in training people to give each other feedback, few of us have been taught how to receive feedback well.

“Receiving feedback can feel both like both a gift and a colonoscopy,” explained Dr. Sheila Heen, a lecturer at Harvard Law School and author of Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, when we interviewed her recently on the Making Positive Psychology Work Podcast.  “Feedback can help us learn, grow, and improve in our careers, but at the same time, getting feedback can also be among some of our most painful experiences at work.” 

Studies suggest that if we regularly, proactively seek negative feedback – that is, by asking others what we could do better or what we could change – then we’re more likely to have higher job satisfaction, adapt more quickly in new roles, and receive higher performance reviews compared to those who don’t seek feedback.  The trick is understanding and managing our resistance to feedback, so we can approach it with the confidence and curiosity that allows us to look for what will help us grow. 

Sheila explained that there are three different kinds of feedback – appreciation, coaching, and evaluation – and we need all three if we are to learn and grow. 

  • Appreciation – We feel seen and valued. It motivates and encourages.
  • Coaching – Helps us get better or more effective in some way. It might increase knowledge, skills, capability, growth, or collaboration. 
  • Evaluation – Rates or ranks us against a set of expectations, and informs decision-making, such as our performance reviews.  Given that we can feel judged, and up to 71% of us feel our performance reviews are not an accurate evaluation, this can be the most emotionally volatile type of feedback.  However, not knowing how we’re tracking can create anxiety.

When it comes to receiving this feedback, Sheila noted that it is helpful to understand that there are three kinds of triggers that can block out our ability to hear feedback:

  • Truth Triggers – We believe the feedback we receive is unhelpful or untrue.  We may feel indignant, wronged, or exasperated, and we might reject, defend, or counterattack.  The challenge is to hear what the giver is trying to tell us and to see ourselves accurately, given that we all have blind spots.
  • Relationship triggers – The feedback is colored by our relationship with the person giving the feedback.  Even if we don’t trust their judgment, or like how we’re being treated, their feedback still might be helpful.  The challenge is to separate the “who” from the “what.”
  • Identity triggers – These attack our stories of who we are, and also reflect our own unique sensitivities around receiving feedback.  The challenge is to keep the feedback in perspective and to embrace a growth mindset.

So, what can you try to make receiving feedback in your workplace easier?

Sheila suggests trying the following:

  • Develop a feedback culture – You need all three kinds of feedback: appreciation, coaching, and evaluation.  Discuss these questions with your teams: How are you doing on each of these fronts?  What kind of feedback could you use more of?  And how do you provide it for each other across the team?  This can open up opportunities to offer each other appreciation, suggestions, and coaching throughout the year, rather than having to wait for an annual performance review to get feedback.  In this way, you’re making giving and receiving feedback the new norm for your team.  You’re creating psychological safety.
  • Sit with the feedback – When feedback is incoming, many of us tend to scan it for what’s wrong with the feedback itself, so we can set it aside and move on with our life.  Perhaps the person giving the feedback is not exactly correct, or they don’t really understand what you’re trying to accomplish, or you don’t like or trust them, or you feel it’s not helping with who you want to be.  However, instead of “wrong spotting,” try to first look for what the feedback tells you, understand it, and what might be right about it.  You can then decide later what to accept and what to reject.  And even if you decide that 90 percent of the feedback is off-target, that last golden 10 percent might be just the insight you need to grow.
  • Nurture a growth mindset –  –  It’s easy to react with a fixed mindset to feedback about not measuring up in some way.  You can feel you’re not smart enough, competent enough, or worthy enough.  With identity triggers such as a fixed mindset, you can feel overwhelmed, upset, and you’re likely to supersize the feedback out of proportion.  However, if you adopt a growth mindset, you can accept where you’re at right now.  In terms of the things that matter – such as your leadership or your ability to collaborate and produce results – you’re always learning, and feedback is really just helping you see the next thing that you can work on.  So, when you receive feedback, you may need to remind yourself to step over into a growth mindset as you think about what’s right about this feedback that might be helpful to you.

What can you do to be more open when you’re receiving feedback?

To discover more evidence-based practices for helping people to thrive at work, check out the Making Positive Psychology Work Podcast.