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Embracing the Vulnerability of Feedback

September 14, 2021 | Katie Aldrich

Think about the last time you received constructive feedback. If you’re anything like me and most people, that critique probably didn’t feel great. Our initial response to constructive feedback is usually pretty unpleasant — grief, irritation, denial — and rarely does it feel constructive. But as much as constructive feedback can hurt, we know it’s essential to professional growth. 

So let’s look at why we typically shrink from honest feedback in the workplace — both giving and getting it — and see how you can build a habit that spins even the toughest criticism into professional development gold.

Why Feedback Feels Like 💩

An inherent part of constructive feedback is its focus on our weak spots. By nature it overlooks all the many (many!!) areas where we’re (so obviously!) amazing at our jobs. This feels unfair because it ignores all the hard work we’ve already put into the areas of our performance that make us proud and that add real value to our teams. 

We also simply aren’t used to getting stark feedback, which makes the experience disorienting. Sure, we go through the motions of an annual review cycle or make it a practice to ask colleagues for feedback on our documents or presentations. But my experience from years in talent management is that we rarely get the type of feedback we actually need from these situations. Instead, we get watered-down, vague, or rushed versions of what people think of us, limited by their fears of hurt feelings, lack of anonymity, or long to-do lists. This indirect, unspecific feedback lets us check the box of continuous improvement and keeps everyone feeling polite and comfortable in the workplace — it’s also a huge waste of time. 

How To Make It Better 👍

If you’re looking to actually grow in your career, then you need to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly of how other people perceive you in the workplace. Described below are some tactics I use with my Fringe PD clients to help them get to that next level of impact.

  • Start small. Identify one piece of constructive feedback you’ve received that you’d like to learn more about. You don’t even have to agree with that feedback, and frankly, you probably won’t. You just have to be willing to be curious about it. By focusing on one area of investigation, you can turn whatever negative energy you’re feeling into positive motivation to learn more. 
  • Create conditions for privacy and honesty. For each area of curiosity, select at least 3 people, ideally with varying levels of seniority to you, who have observed the behavior. Reach out to them individually to let them know you’re working to improve your XYZ skills and would like to have a one-on-one conversation with them about what they’ve seen and how you might improve. When you get together, reiterate that you’re gathering information to support your professional growth and be clear that their honesty is important to you.

    Come prepared with 2-4 open-ended questions (How can I be clearer in my communication about XYZ? How has my current approach impacted you and your ability to do your job effectively?). And then — this is the really hard part! — actually listen to their answers. Resist the urge to interrupt, and try to speak only to summarize your understanding of what they said and to ask for their confirmation or clarification. This approach demonstrates that you really do want their feedback and encourages them to continue to be honest with you on future questions. 
  • Build accountability for yourself. At the end of each conversation, be sure to thank the other person and ask if it would be OK to follow up with any questions after some reflection. You’ll also want to close the loop by letting them know how you plan to apply their feedback and others’. This follow-up is just as important as asking for the feedback itself! Your colleagues took a risk by giving you their honest, unfiltered feedback. Don’t reward them for their vulnerability with a lack of follow-up. Once people see you taking their honest feedback seriously, they’re more likely to keep giving it to you. 
  • Ride the emotional wave. Even the most gently delivered feedback can cause a tsunami of emotions. Anticipate this natural reaction, and make a plan to navigate your emotions in a productive way until they pass, avoiding turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms. Once you return to a more neutral emotional state, you can revisit the feedback more objectively and will be in a better frame of mind to learn from it. Over time, this process will build up your tolerance for criticism, so that when you receive super harsh feedback — what might currently send you flying into a rage or crying in a corner — you’ll instead welcome that discomfort and trust that it will eventually pass. The intensity of your reaction may even be a sign that the feedback is particularly valuable. 
  • Commit to learning, not agreeing. You don’t have to agree with every piece of feedback you receive. Remember, each person is giving you their unique perspective in a single moment in time, which can hinge on a variety of unrelated factors like recency bias, their default communication style, and the last time they ate. You might also receive feedback that — even when considered thoughtfully and neutrally — is just plain wrong. And that’s OK! Don’t bend yourself into a pretzel trying to make everything make sense. Instead, ask yourself what you can learn from this feedback, and move on. 

Honest feedback is hard to come by these days. But when you do get it, you’ll know — because it’ll suck, and that’s a good thing! Using the tactics above, you’ll learn to move past these uncomfortable feelings and start to appreciate constructive feedback as a gift on your professional journey.

Interested in creating more opportunities for candid feedback in your organization? Ask us about Fringe Insights