How we really feel about feedback

Years ago, at a conference in the US, I met with a statistician who was responsible for processing all of the 360-degree feedback responses associated with a 78-question leadership questionnaire. He had been doing some “number crunching” – analysing a massive data set of more than 100,000 people who had participated in the questionnaire globally – to see if there were any interesting patterns

One of his observations was that the two lowest ranked scores across the whole data set were:
• Provides effective feedback
• Responds effectively to feedback
The obvious conclusion? People aren’t particularly good at either giving or receiving feedback. Yet, very few of us would express any ideological issues with feedback. In fact, most people, if asked, would speak very positively about the importance and value of feedback. So why do so many of us struggle to digest something that we ostensibly believe is so valuable?
There are two kinds of feedback:
• Feedback offered by others in response to our soliciting it – either in person or via some kind of questionnaire or feedback tool
• Unsolicited feedback – typically (but not always) provided “in the moment”
Common Challenges with Receiving Unsolicited Feedback
Where feedback is volunteered/offered by someone without our specifically seeking it, there is every chance that there is some “energy” behind it. Since the data above suggests that, for many people, the very act of choosing to make some observations about another’s conduct directly to them without having been invited to do so is abhorrent, it is likely that the overcoming of this reticence has been prompted by something they feel very strongly about. Something that we have said or done may have bothered them so significantly that they are prepared to run the risk of providing unsolicited feedback and having to deal with our reaction.
Depending upon the degree of grievance that they feel, it’s quite possible that the delivery of the feedback will include some “emotional load”. Not only might the feedback itself catch us unaware, but any emotional loading on their part might naturally trigger defensive reflexes. We feel hijacked and accused. It could be that if their feedback is provided “in the heat of the moment” that there is already some tension in the situation – or that the setting is such that we feel our perceived faults are being called out in front of others or at an otherwise inopportune time. We never even had the opportunity to get ourselves ready to receive the feedback and find ourselves “confronted” and having to respond “in the moment”.
One of the other common issues is that – fearing our reaction – sometimes people provide only indirect hints about something that they’re not happy with. Occasionally, this strategy is so indirect that, if we’re not being super-attentive, we don’t even realise what they’re actually saying. They were so focused on avoiding any risk of confrontation that we might not have even recognised that we were being given feedback.
I would argue, however, that – though there is an art to providing feedback (which will be addressed in a separate blog) – the onus is always on us when it comes to receiving feedback (and especially so if the person providing it to us is a direct report who is taking a risk even to dare providing it in the first place).
What about positive feedback?
When unsolicited feedback is positive, and therefore seemingly free from the risks of defensive reactions, it is still important that one graciously receives the feedback – thus rewarding the individual who has taken the trouble to provide it.
Why would there ever be issues with responding effectively to solicited feedback?
Surely when we have asked for feedback then we should be suitably prepared to respond effectively. Alas, all too often, this is not the case.
More often than not, the degree of genuine inquiry is “under-cooked”. We might be asking for feedback in a tokenistic way – because we think that we’re expected to do so rather than out of a genuine desire to understand others’ needs of us or observations about us. We might have been enrolled on a development program and the feedback is just one of the activities that we are dutifully or begrudgingly participating in – blissfully ignorant that people might have things to say to us that we don’t expect and might find clash significantly with our own self-image.
The anonymity which accompanies most 360-degree feedback processes often compounds the challenges since it encourages people to provide feedback that they might not have felt comfortable giving directly (without the amnesty that the anonymity provides). This often results in the feedback being delivered with increased emotional loading for a couple of possible reasons. The issue may have festered for some time with them not knowing how to safely deliver the message until the “cloak of anonymity” is offered. And that cloak of anonymity may also embolden them to say things that they would never say – or would say more tactfully – if they were delivering the message straight to the other party’s face. So, even when someone has apparently prepared him/herself for feedback, they can still be caught off guard by the unanticipated “pointiness” that can occasionally accompany what has been said.
Tips for Receiving Feedback Effectively
• Get into the discipline of thanking people for their feedback. Recognise that it can take courage and effort to offer you feedback – and reward people for doing so.
• Assume positive intent on the part of the person giving feedback – even if you’re “sure” that their intent is not so. What harm can it do? There may still be something in what they are saying that could be useful to you.
• Seek to understand. If something about their feedback doesn’t square with your own views, or doesn’t yet make total sense to you, don’t react defensively or immediately disagree. Inquire further (sincerely) – and not in the spirit of “cross examination”. If the feedback is a little non-specific, ask if they have any examples for you to consider. But be sure to convey that you really do want to understand rather than challenge, disprove, disagree, dismiss, defend, justify, etc. A particularly powerful question might be “And what would a completely satisfactory resolution look like from your perspective?”
• If you need to take some time to consider your response, then let them know – and do take the time. Get back to them once you have had a chance to consider what they’ve said. One of the most rewarding things – for a person who has given feedback – is to know that you have taken the time to think it through, to consider what it means and how to respond. If they never hear back from you, they may wonder whether or not you were actually listening. This is especially important when you have solicited their views. Tell people what you have made of their feedback and what you intend to do. You might even enlist them in giving you their perspective from time to time as to whether your efforts to change are resulting in perceived improvements.
• Take a little time to think about the feedback you have received – away from the urgency of the moment or the other party expecting your immediate response. This can often assist in the recognition of the thematic truths in their observations – as well as allow you to get some insight about how to go about making the necessary changes. Until you have arrived at an acceptance of the feedback they’ve given you and a recognition of its validity – and of course there will be times when their observations are not necessarily valid – then it’s too early to try to adjust in line with their expectations.
• Don’t take it personally – or feel that they’ve got it in for you or don’t like you. The chances are that, if they really had no time for you, they wouldn’t have even made the effort. What they’re saying may or may not be accurate. On one level, it doesn’t matter. They are as likely to be describing their needs, hopes and expectations of you. Getting hurt or defensive will likely obscure your capacity to recognise the occasional “golden nuggets” that can so easily get lost if we’re too emotionally reactive to what we’re hearing/reading.
 Resist the urge to apologise and placate unless this is 100% sincere on your part. There’s no value in pretending to take something on board, to accept responsibility, if you don’t really mean it. All this does is damage your credibility and trustworthiness.

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