Dealing With Feedback

By Chris Chittenden

“People ask for criticism, but they only want praise.”

... W. Somerset Maugham (1874 - 1965)

All of the education we have ever seen offered in the field of performance feedback has related to how to give feedback. A little while ago, one of our clients asked us whether we had any material on receiving, rather than giving, feedback and this gave us pause for thought. How do people listen to feedback and how could they get the most from it?

Whether we are aware of it or not, we are constantly getting feedback and responding to it. When a friend tells us they like or don’t like the way we are dressed – we are getting feedback. When we present an answer to a problem and someone tells us we are right or wrong – we are getting feedback. Indeed, whenever we hear someone giving us their opinion about us or something we are putting forward, this is feedback. And we may modify something in response to this feedback. We might change our clothes or change our answer. Yet, when most people enter into conversations specifically about performance feedback, they are normally more circumspect. Why is this and how can we make conversations about feedback on our performance more productive?

To begin with, we would like to point out there are no easy answers here. As human beings, we listen to feedback in a context largely constructed of the relationships we have with those giving us the feedback, the culture of the group within which we work and what we feel is at stake. If we feel we may lose something as a result of specific feedback then we are likely to enter the conversation in a defensive mood. In other words, we are closing ourselves to other’s opinions and the value they may offer us. This is one of the challenges in linking salary reviews with feedback conversations. The focus becomes our financial outcome not what we can learn.

Let us look at how you can make feedback conversations more valuable in the context of your moods, which can provide a simple framework to remember when having these conversations.

The key is to decide what mood you would like to take to these feedback conversations and work to be in that mood when you enter the conversation. In our view, the best moods for receiving feedback are acceptance, ambition and wonder.

A mood of acceptance speaks to listening to the feedback and taking it as simply that - someone’s view of you. You do not have to like what they have to say, just accept that as their view. After all, they see the world differently to you – we all observe the world in a different way – and the other person’s observations may provide you with some insights to you and your performance that you do not see. A mood of acceptance allows us to process the feedback on its merit.

A mood of ambition creates a future focus to taking more effective action. Feedback conversations are more valuable when they focus on what you could do differently in the future not what you have done in the past. All too often, we see feedback conversations where the predominant focus is backwards. A good rule of thumb is to spend a third of the conversation focusing on where you have been and two thirds of the conversation on where you want to go. If you find the conversation having too much of a backwards focus, seek to shift the conversation forwards. You can do this simply by asking yourself or the person giving you the feedback some forwards focused questions. What would you like to see me doing? How could I achieve this? Who could help me make this change? And so on.

Finally, a mood of wonder speaks to openness and curiosity. If we are to get more value from feedback conversations, we must be open to exploring what the feedback means and how we can utilise it into the future.

Ultimately the value of feedback predominantly lays in the opportunity it presents to you to generate more effective actions and better outcomes. You do not have to accept all feedback that comes your way, but you ignore it at your peril.

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© 2005 Chris Chittenden