Receiving critical feedback is one of the most difficult aspects of leadership.
For years, I’ve been working to become a better receiver of feedback. Even after hundreds of tough conversations, I still cringe when someone starts sharing a tough message with me.
My heart rate still races. My first impulse is still to defend myself.
I’m convinced that receiving feedback will never be easy, but — with effort — I’ve found that it can become much easier.
My goal with this article is to share what I’ve learned about feedback from years of leadership, countless books I’ve read, several trainings I’ve given on the topic, and numerous tips I’ve gleaned from friends along the way.
In my research, I’ve discovered that three key factors block us from accepting and acting upon feedback. One is biological, and two are psychological.
First, we’ll talk about these three feedback blockers, then we’ll dive into practical tips for how to overcome them.
Feedback Blocker #1: Hormones
Two hormones cause problems for us in our struggle to accept and act upon feedback: cortisol and adrenaline.
Cortisol is the stress hormone. It heightens our awareness of threats and increases our heart rate to prime us for handling the threat. From an evolutionary perspective, cortisol was useful to help us perceive threats from predators.
Although we no longer have to deal with those types of predators in our daily lives, cortisol still drops into our system whenever we perceive a threat.
Unfortunately, this means that our bodies produce cortisol when we believe we’re about to receive feedback. Our bodies experience feedback as a threat to our peace of mind and wellbeing.
Once feedback has been shared with us, the “threat” is confirmed and our bodies produce adrenaline.
Adrenaline focuses all of our body’s energy and resources upon the threat at hand, and blood is diverted into our muscles (and away from our brains). Rational thinking goes out the window.
Adrenaline triggers our “fight or flight” reaction, which is why many people respond to feedback by either becoming defensive or trying to end the conversation.
In other words, our bodies are working against us in our efforts to receive feedback. While we cannot stop our bodies from producing these two hormones, we can gradually train ourselves to view feedback as a positive rather than a negative. Training ourselves to not see feedback as a threat can lower our stress levels and help us truly hear what others are saying.
Feedback Blocker #2: Mental Stories
Our brains are hardwired to process the world through stories. We often make observations, then filter those observations through the lens of what would make sense in a story.
These narratives are often judgmental or counterproductive, and three archetypes show up time and again: villain, victim, and helpless stories.
It’s easy to write a villain into any story. The villain could be an upset client who is using colorful language to voice their frustration. It could also be a boss who is walking us through our annual performance review. In the case of feedback, the “villain” is often the person giving us a tough message.
If someone else is the villain, we’re generally the victim. We assume the other person is intentionally trying to be hurtful, and that we are the innocent ones taking the fall for something that is not our fault.
Helpless stories don’t necessarily have a villain or a victim. Instead, we craft a mental story about how we are entirely helpless in a situation (e.g., we have no time to do something, we cannot change our personality traits).
Think about a recent time you received feedback from someone.
Did you tell yourself one of the three stories above?
What are the drawbacks of telling yourself that story?
What is another story that would fit those same facts?
Feedback Blocker #3: The 3 P’s
Because it’s uncomfortable to hear critical feedback, our brains unconsciously search for reasons to invalidate the feedback we receive.
While creating a company training about feedback last year, I realized that there are “3 P’s” that prevent us from truly listening to the feedback others share with us: the PERSON sharing the message, PERSONAL feelings, and the PACKAGING of how the person shares the message.
The PERSON Giving the Message
Our brains are critical of who is sharing a message with us. We may discount a message that’s coming from a direct report — especially one whom we think is inexperienced, young, old, or [insert your own judgmental adjective here]. Yet, we may make an immediate behavioral change when the same message comes from a boss or peer.
We form snap judgments of people, and unfortunately, those snap judgments linger in our heads longer than they should. These impressions are often inaccurate or incomplete, but they influence the way we process messages from that person.
“[I]f we’re serious about growth and improvement, we have no choice but to get good at learning from just about anyone.” -Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen
We shouldn’t let our biases about someone get in the way of receiving a message we need to hear. We need to remember that everyone offers a unique perspective that can shed light on how we are being perceived by others.
Another impediment to accepting feedback is our ego.
Pride blocks our ability to process and fix mistakes. Counterintuitively, the best people in any given field often recognize they have the most to learn. High performers often see feedback as valuable data to be marshaled into personal improvement and new behavior.
“As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.” -John Archibald Wheeler
Beyond our ego, other personal feelings can block us from receiving feedback due to something called “cognitive dissonance.”
Cognitive dissonance is defined as “the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs…When confronted with facts that contradict personal beliefs, ideals, and values, people will find a way to resolve the contradiction in order to reduce their discomfort.”
This dissonance frequently manifests when we receive feedback.
We think of ourselves as good people: we work hard, we’re trying our best, and we have positive intentions. And yet, we sometimes receive feedback that runs counter to those beliefs.
For example, if someone gives us feedback that we aren’t working fast enough, that conflicts with our belief that we are doing a good job. Rather than wrestling with the dissonance, our brains rush to one of two conclusions:
- We stick with our original feeling that we are a great employee, and we discard the feedback; OR
- We discard our original feeling that we’re doing a good job and think that we must be a bad employee.
Both extremes are bad.
We need to embrace the dissonance and walk into the gray area: we are a good employee who simply made a mistake. This opinion is much more nuanced and accurate than accepting either extreme.
When we receive feedback, we also tend to assume that the feedback speaks to our identity, when it instead refers to a specific action or inaction of ours that could have been handled better.
“Identity is the story we tell ourselves about who we are and what the future holds for us, and when critical feedback is incoming, that story is under attack.” -Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen
The key is to recognize that feedback almost always refers to a specific behavior rather than our personal identity. Once we make that important mental shift, we begin to learn and truly hear what others are saying.
The PACKAGING of the Message
Unfortunately, most of our learning will come from people who don’t give feedback well. It would be easy to discount every message that is “packaged” poorly, but doing so would lead to stagnation rather than growth. We cannot control the way others give us feedback, but we can absolutely control the way we respond to that feedback.
Maybe the person giving the feedback was shouting, crying, swearing, or misinformed. But what did they say?
Was there a nugget of truth buried deep in the message?
“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.” -Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen
As soon as we orient our minds to search for these nuggets of truth, our personal development skyrockets.
Learning from feedback demands that we make a life decision to be continuous learners who prioritize the truth over fuzzy feelings and sugar-coated messages.
To recap, three forces block us from accepting feedback:
- Two hormones: cortisol and adrenaline
- Mental stories: villain, victim, and helpless
- The 3 P’s: person, personal, packaging
Tips for Receiving Feedback
Most of the articles I’ve read about accepting feedback have not acknowledged the difficult aspects of feedback — like what to do when you disagree with the other person’s feedback.
Feedback is a complicated thing, and I think it’s helpful to explore the aspects of what makes feedback so tricky.
Here are a number of tips that have helped me. I think they’ll help you too.
Develop a habit of asking for feedback.
Feedback becomes easier to receive the more you ask for it. I can’t prove this, but I feel like by asking for feedback, I am able to get ahead of my body’s stress response and limit the amount of cortisol and adrenaline that flow into my system. It’s a way of tricking my brain into thinking, “If I’m asking for this, it cannot be much of a threat.”
Mentally prepare to receive feedback.
As a leader, you will receive a lot of feedback, and that feedback can be overwhelming if you don’t prepare for it. If you are about to go into a 1-on-1 or another meeting in which you expect to receive difficult feedback, you can mentally prepare by taking a few long, deep breaths; going on a short walk to clear your mind; or reminding yourself that feedback is one of the best ways to grow as a leader.
Make a life decision to exhibit a growth mindset.
Half the battle comes before a tough message is ever shared. Those who learn best from critical feedback are generally those who exhibit a growth mindset. Individuals with a growth mindset believe talent is malleable. They believe intelligence and ability can be developed through effort and practice. A growth mindset forces us to acknowledge that we are a work in progress. We need input for growth.
Give the other person time to share their thoughts. Don’t interrupt or cut them off. Remember that they are just trying to improve you and/or the situation for the future. As you identify the harmful mental stories (victim, villain, and helpless) that will likely bubble up in your head, pop those thought bubbles before they materialize into outright defensiveness.
“The better you understand the feedback, the more likely you are to find something in it that is useful, or at the very least to understand the ways in which you are being misunderstood, and why.” -Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen
Don’t think about your response while the other person speaks.
One of my colleagues recommends, “Turn off the part of your brain that is always trying to react to what people are saying.” If you can do that, you’ll be able to listen rather than immediately formulating a defensive response.
Say “thank you.”
Before you respond with anything else, thank the person who gave you the feedback. Recognize that it takes a lot of courage to share feedback. Saying “thank you” also puts you in the frame of mind to view criticism constructively rather than getting defensive. Feedback is an opportunity to grow and develop; take advantage of that opportunity.
Uncover their path.
Ask questions to understand the other person’s perspective and see what you’re missing. Find out how they reached their conclusion. Doing so can help you empathize with their perspective and avoid painting them out to be a villain.
“I urge you to be curious enough to want to understand how the people who see things differently from you came to see them that way.” -Ray Dalio
Find the golden nugget of truth.
Even if you disagree with some of the message and the way the person shared it, there’s always something you can learn from what they said.
Be mindful of the difference between intentions and behaviors.
When we see someone else do something “bad,” we assume they’re a bad person. However, if we do the same thing, we rationalize away our own behavior because we know our positive intentions. For instance, if you see a co-worker show up late to work, you may conclude that they are disengaged or lazy, whereas if you personally show up late to work, you know that your intentions were pure and your alarm didn’t go off. In other words, we judge others based upon their behaviors but we judge ourselves based upon our intentions. Psychologists call this “fundamental attribution error,” which is explained further in the short video below.
“Talk about intentions and impacts separately: ‘I’ve been working hard to be more patient. And yet it sounds like that’s not the impact I’m having. That’s upsetting. Let’s figure out why.’” -Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen
State your agreement before your disagreement.
You may disagree with some of the things the other person shared. Maybe you made a conscious, thoughtful decision to do X, and they think you shouldn’t have done that. It’s okay to disagree. But first, be sure to state where you agree before talking about where you disagree. By finding common ground first, you do a few things:
- You put yourself and the other person in a frame of mind to work together to find a solution to the problem at hand.
- You’re less likely to be perceived as defensive.
- You make it clear that you truly want to do the right thing, and that there may be multiple ways of understanding the situation.
Even if you disagree with the other person’s message, remember that their perspective is valuable because it’s helping you understand how others are perceiving your behavior. And as I learned from one of my old Marketing professors, “Perception is reality.”
Separate feedback from advice.
It’s easy to confuse feedback and advice, but the two are very different. Feedback is telling someone what they did poorly. Advice is telling them how you think they should fix it. Listen to these differences between feedback and advice:
- “You said ‘ah’ and ‘um’ numerous times during that presentation, which made it difficult to concentrate on your message.” → “I think you should record your next training so you can listen to how much you stammer.”
- “When you interrupted me in that meeting, I felt disrespected.” → “You should speak less often in our meetings.”
“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” -Neil Gaiman
Recognize that you are the ultimate arbiter of whether to change.
Sometimes others will tell you to change something about yourself that you don’t want to change. For example, my COO recently volunteered to do a 360 review with the company. After receiving the aggregated feedback, she emailed the company to share her takeaways and intended next steps. She thanked everyone for their courage to give her feedback, explained which things she would change about her leadership, then also articulated a few of the recommendations she received but decided not to change about herself. I was impressed by her willingness to say, “I will not be changing X, Y, and Z aspects of my leadership. Those are part of what make me who I am.” Rather than upsetting people, her confidence in her own leadership style inspired others to trust her competence as a leader.
“Receiving feedback well doesn’t mean you always have to take the feedback. Receiving it well means engaging in the conversation skillfully and making thoughtful choices about whether and how to use the information and what you’re learning. It’s about managing your emotional triggers so that you can take in what the other person is telling you, and being open to seeing yourself in new ways.” -Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen
Circle back with the other person later after you’ve had the chance to think on their feedback further or put it into practice. Ask them whether they’ve noticed an improvement and ask them for accountability.
Improving at feedback requires self-control, confidence without ego, thick skin, a growth mindset, a desire to learn, and a heck of a lot of patience.
If you’re up for the challenge, the tips shared in this article will help you develop the skills necessary to learn from feedback and become a better leader.