Kym Ward Gaffney (Coaching leader, PwC) describes feedback as a gift.  She defines feedback as  “a conversation or information that helps to adjust or affirm performance”.

Throughout our life, we have all received feedback whether it’s feedback from completing a piece of coursework, more extended feedback from your teachers at parents evening, feedback from participating in a particular activity (sports, performing arts etc.), even feedback from your friends / family with regards to how you may of handled certain situations.  The feedback you received may have been in various forms from written to verbal, or via text message etc.  However, when entering the work environment, feedback becomes a lot more formal (although informal feedback can be given).  You tend to have 3-4 performance reviews in a year, where you sit with your manager and discuss the feedback given on your performance from people you have worked with.  Whereas in school for example, we are used to getting feedback from the same people, once you step into the work place, feedback comes from a much broader range of stakeholders. Also feedback at work carries far higher stakes because it hugely determines if and when you get promoted and if you are entitled to a pay rise / bonus. These are really important things when you are twenty something year old, trying to get ahead in your career, and save for a car, your first home deposit etc., your future!

I decided to write this post because I was reflecting recently on my placement year and my final ever performance review.  I had three performance reviews that year , my first one was full of lots of things to work on (to be expected as I’d only been there 4 months at that point) and my second review highlighted more of my strengths, with a few more areas of developments . With my final review, I remember thinking beforehand “yepppp, I’ve worked on all my areas for improvement, there’s no way someone can say anything negative about me now”.  Final review came, my manager read all these positive comments , and then two twos , “however, someone has commented  that Rene does not take ownership of tasks”.  

My immediate reaction (in my mind) was *heavy Jamaican accent* “EEEDDIAAATTT TING DAT!! WHO CHAT NEGATIVITY PUN MI NAMEE???????!!!”.

I didn’t think the feedback was true at all, and it really annoyed me. It must have showed on my face because my manager then asked if I was ok.

Why do we find it hard to digest feedback?

Sheila Heen (the author of Thanks for the Feedback) explains that although feedback is meant with the best intentions, it’s often viewed negatively because of 2 conflicting human needs – the need to grow and develop and the need to be accepted and respected for who we are. Feedback sits in the middle.  According to Sheila, she believes there are 3 main reasons or triggers for why we find it hard to accept feedback:

  • Truth triggers (The challenge to see):  Our inability to see ourselves with regards to how we react to feedback in terms of our tone of voice or facial expression. This is compounded by the fact that people that give feedback tend to be quite vague,  so we naturally have a truth reaction e.g. “that comments unfair”, that’s not true” when you don’t understand the feedback and can’t physically see yourself and the impact you’re having on those around you.
  • Relationship triggers (The challenge of we) Feedback exists within the context of relationships. Our reactions tend to focus on who’s giving us the feedback, how they give it to us, where and when they give us feedback. This means we get distracted from what the feedback actually is, because we become preoccupied with the who.
  • Identity triggers (The challenge of me) there are certain values or qualities which we all hold closely to ourselves. Feedback that questions the person we believes ourselves to be hits harder. For example if you believe yourself to be a people person, a good team player, you will be more sensitive to feedback that questions those qualities than if it was something like you are not the most organised person (if that’s not a quality to hold closely)

The truth is, we’d prefer to hear how amazing we are doing opposed to any form of criticism. However, without constructive feedback, how will we ever know the areas we need to develop build and improve on? We can’t just rely on our own biased internal voices. If you’re someone that is striving for greatness, then that means accepting that you are not perfect and being committed to self-improvement.  When I think back to my initial reaction to that feedback, I feel so silly now. I’ve learnt to reframe feedback as “this is information that I can use to better myself”, opposed to   “why is this person hating on me?” .  Based on my own experiences, I have found several benefits of feedback:

  1. It makes you more self-aware: Prior to receiving feedback, I always thought of myself as someone who took ownership of everything I applied myself to, but unfortunately someone thought different. Maybe when I interacted with that colleague, I didn’t reflect that, hence their opinion. Feedback highlights  behaviours that you probably didn’t even realise you was exhibiting and for that reason, it makes you think a little more about how you conduct yourself / handle certain situations.  You want your actions to reflect the person you believe yourself to be, and feedback from other colleagues can highlight if that’s not the case.
  2. Feedback strengthens relationships: Whilst you won’t necessarily be told in your performance review who exactly said what, if you are able to work on all your development points, your relationships with those that highlighted them will strengthen.
  3. It provides a framework for action: Especially as a graduate entering the work place, the feedback we are given can be used to create goals that we can then work towards.  Sometimes it can be hard especially so early on in our careers t to know  what we should be striving to achieve, but a great place to start is with feedback from our stakeholders.
  4. Renews your focus: It’s so easy after the first few months once you’ve learned the ropes of your job to get comfortable and to become a little complacent. However feedback gives you a renewed energy and focus, a kick up the bum to remind you that you’ve still got work to do!!

Dealing with feedback

When Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook COO) visited Airbnb to share some career gems with their employees she was asked “What’s the number one thing you look for in someone who can scale with a company?”

Sandberg’s reply:

“Someone who takes feedback well. Because people who can take feedback well are people who can learn and grow quickly”.

How you respond to feedback is critical.  Your ability to receive feedback positivity will demonstrate that you are mature, humble and committed to being the best person for yourself and your team.  I’ve provided some tips below on how to handle feedback:

Accept it, in its entirety: When receiving feedback, it’s easy to just focus solely on the positive or just on the negatives. But try really hard to open you mind to fully digesting it all.  Continue to do all the things you are currently doing well, don’t get complacent and with your areas for improvement, be sure to ask more questions (more on this further down)

Manage your emotions: When we hear criticism about ourselves, even before hearing everything is to become defensive. Our facial expressions and body language becomes dismissive, and we start planning our reply before even hearing all the details. We are dying to blurt out “That’s not true”, “when did I do that?”.  Do everything in your power to stop those reactions. The moment you start reacting is the moment you close your mind to everything that is being said. Instead of listening for real understanding, we listen to make justifications for our actions. Reacting rashly turns what is meant to a harmonious 2 way dialogue into a debate, an argument and there is nothing for you to gain from that. Keep in your mind that even in your feedback conversation, you are still being reviewed.

Shifting the blame / making excuses is a no no: When you’re receiving feedback, your manager may bring up an example of when you demonstrated the criticised behaviour. Don’t try and pass the blame to someone else who was in that situation, or make excuses.  Take ownership.

Ask questions for deeper understanding:  Feedback tends to be quite vague, so to get the most out of it, you need to ask questions to gain clarity. For example, the feedback is that you’re written communication can be better.

“Thanks for the feedback, would you be able to provide an example of when my written communication wasn’t that great?” (seek examples)

“You mentioned that my email to the director of the technology team had quite a few errors. Have you noticed me send other emails like this? (find out whether you have done this frequently or just once)

“Going forward, can you suggest any ideas on how I can improve the way I communicate with stakeholders?” (ask for specific solutions)

Seek out other perspectives: Once you have received your feedback, reach out to others that you know and trust in your firm and ask their opinion. Do they agree with the areas of development you have been given, how would they go forward in addressing them?

Reflect – plan – and move forward: The most important part of feedback is what you do with it. The question you need to ask yourself is “how can I convert what I have been told into action?”.  In the process of moving forward, check in with those around you to ask how they think  you are doing, if they are seeing a change etc., and try to do this a couple of times before your next formal review.

4 things to note about feedback:

  • 2 way conversation:  Feedback isn’t about someone talking at you, whilst you just listen and nod. It’s meant to be a 2 way dialogue, where you can also ask questions and discuss ways to turn your feedback into a plan of action. How can you use your feedback to proceed with your career?
  • Actionable: The point of feedback is to identify areas for the development and take action. These actions need to be consistent and not just one offs otherwise you’re not really improving. Set up touch points to validate that you’re making positive progress
  • Perception and truth:  You may not always agree with the feedback, because a) although you probably won’t want to admit it, you don’t like hearing criticisms or b) you don’t believe the feedback to be true.  However,  the reality is that’s someone’s perception of you, and if you think it is wrong, you need to find a way to project yourself as the person you believe yourself to be. In the workplace, perception = truth unfortunately.

And finally …..

Feedback is meant to be POSITIVE process: Feedback is meant to help you grow, develop and be the best person you can be. It’s not meant to be a “highlight all your flaws” or “you’re good at this and bad at that” type of conversation.  Feedback conversations should celebrate your strengths but also focus on the areas for development, where with a little more work, these areas can become your strengths too.




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