Feedback is a gift. There are many good articles out there on how to provide feedback effectively in the workplace. This article is about being on the other side - receiving feedback. What is a reasonable way to process and deal with difficult feedback?
Things are never ideal when critical feedback is shared. It might be sprung on us when we least expected it. Maybe the feedback was not timely and they are referencing something that happened a while back. Or the person is not being specific because they are uncomfortable providing feedback. All of this might irritate or trigger you in other ways, making it even less ideal to process the feedback. People react differently and often poorly, making things worse for everyone involved.
I want to offer a mental model when you are in one of those situations where you are receiving critical feedback. There is a great book called Crucial Conversations that I recommend reading, but for this post, I am recommending a two step process to deal with those situations in your work life.
The two steps are:
Together with the person providing feedback, lean in to ask clarifying questions about the feedback. Your only goal at that time is to better understand the feedback and get clarity. Do not agree or disagree with the feedback during the discussion or meeting.
Later, by yourself, process the feedback and choose what to do with it - accept all or some of it and form next steps, or reject it altogether.
Let me elaborate.
Step 1: Use the meeting to fully understand the feedback, and nothing else.
First off, don’t think “If feedback is a gift, where is the gift receipt? I have my own feedback for this person”. Instead, use the meeting/discussion to ask additional questions that would clarify the feedback. If they are saying something you strongly disagree with, resist the temptation to correct them and push back in that meeting. There will be a time, later, to respond. The only goal is leaning in to gather additional data and specifics about the feedback. For example, you can use words like:
“Tell me more about that”
Paraphrase back but important you do that with a grateful tone. If you found their feedback to be ridiculous, you will need to demonstrate self control and not display that incredulity in your tone.
“How does that (behavior) show up in meetings/situations?”
If the person providing this feedback is your manager, then you particularly want to understand what business outcome is impacted by the feedback they are giving you. This will help later in case you disagree with the feedback provided.
Overall, your position in the discussion when you are receiving feedback is
A mindset that is Curious
A tone that is Grateful
An attitude that is Patient
You should thank the person for providing feedback. You don’t want to be inauthentic, so find something positive to say that you can agree with. For example, a simple “thanks for taking time to share this feedback with me” should suffice. Commit to reflecting on the feedback, don’t commit to making changes...yet.
Step 2: Process the feedback, by yourself.
Reflect on the clarifying data you gathered. Using emotions while you think is fine, however it is important that you don’t let emotions do the thinking. Is this an opportunity to learn something new and grow? If so, consider putting a feedback action plan together that addresses the relevant pieces. Sign up a work buddy - someone you trust - and share your goals with this person. Having a work buddy that is aware of your goals can be a great source of motivation and support as you make changes.
If the additional data you obtained during the meeting does not jive with your own assessment of the situation, then you reject the feedback and change nothing. If the person that provided the feedback is in your management chain or position of authority, you likely need to close the loop with the person. Many managers welcome debate as a way to shape better outcomes and get buy in on the direction, but not all do. So tread carefully - the suggestions here only apply if your manager is open to hearing your point of view and can accept a level of disagreement and debate. Specifically:
Meet in person preferably vs doing it over email
Employ the same mindset, tone and attitude you demonstrated when receiving feedback. You particularly want to ensure you don’t make it personal and you can disagree without being disagreeable.
Tell them what you disagree with but share your ideas, if any, on how can you enable the business outcome differently. Alternatively, offer to disagree and commit if that is the best path forward. This assumes you generally like working in that role/team.
By having a mental model and plan, you can proceed knowing you have a system to help navigate a tricky topic and move ahead like a pro. Good luck!
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