Receiving Feedback Is A Skill
A few good things I learned about making the most of developmental feedback
Delivering feedback is a critical part of my day job as a manager at Google. However, it took me a while to realize that receiving feedback is one of the skills that helped me grow the most in my career.
For many of us, our job is the first setting where we receive developmental feedback from people other than our parents or teachers. That experience may be quite shocking.
I still remember the first time I got professional feedback early in my career. I remember almost every single word that my manager chose to use.
What I remember even more vividly though is the strong reaction that feedback caused in me. Within seconds, I got defensive, I felt like I was being criticized, attacked, unappreciated. I heard what they were trying to tell me, but something inside me kept translating that into a personal criticism. A statement about how I, personally, fell short of expectations.
Good feedback sounds like “here’s one thing you can do better next time”. Better feedback sounds like “here’s one thing that you could do differently to achieve a greater result”.
Embracing that mindset allowed me to accept, process and build on feedback. While I can’t say I prefer criticism over praise, constructive feedback no longer makes me uncomfortable. Instead, I actively seek it.
Changing my mindset around feedback required me to make two key changes:
- stop doing things that hurt my ability to improve
- start doing things that help build on what I hear
Things I Stopped Doing
Taking It Personally
The main reason I had a difficult time processing feedback is the fact that I often took it personally.
When receiving feedback about something I did, I often read it as feedback about me. Oftentimes, that was not the intention.
Instead of hearing “this email was hard to understand”, I heard “you do not communicate effectively”. When the other party was saying “this piece of code is brittle”, I was hearing “you are a lousy programmer”.
I often ended up reacting defensively. I was unable to hear and processing the actual message I needed to receive.
Most developmental feedback will naturally trigger a defensive attitude. That prevents us from getting the full value of what the other person is trying to tell us. We need to make a conscious effort to not jump to defensive mode, and rather engage in active listening.
Arguing With Feedback
Even worse than taking feedback personally, I sometimes found myself wanting to argue with the person delivering it. I wanted to explain why I disagreed with what they were seeing or try to convince them that they were wrong.
In most cases, arguing with feedback is pointless. Take an example from many years ago.
A colleague approached me and told me “I think the comments you left in this review were too harsh”.
Now, if they cared enough to bring up this feedback, perhaps they were not the only ones. Or maybe my communication style could have had an unintended effect on some people, some time.
Yes, I could have argued with my colleague, perhaps even convince them that my tone was not that bad. Winning the argument might even have felt better.
That would not have changed the my comments did trigger a negative reaction for them. Quite likely, others might have had the same reaction. Knowing that, having that awareness, made me more thoughtful when writing review comments. I can tell they were better received from that moment on.
Arguing with people who are trying to give us feedback, does not help us. Eventually, people will shy away from telling us where we can improve. It leads us to us working with less information about what we can do to get better. In the long run, we miss out on a significant opportunity.
Things I Learned To Do Instead
A friend of mine once shared a quote that sounded like “feedback is a gift”
Good feedback is thoughtful and timely. Often, it is as difficult to deliver as it is to receive. It is especially difficult for people we are not very close with.
Any yet, some people choose to take a risk. They let us know where we can do better. They do that knowing well that we may feel hurt by what they say.
Because of this, the first thing I do when receiving feedback is thank whoever is giving it. I thank them because they took a risk and did something uncomfortable. I also thank them because what they are telling me has the potential of making me much better.
Good feedback allows us to identify growth areas. Areas where we could invest more to get better at something we have been trying to do. Even those of us that have good self-awareness often need to work hard to find where they need to improve the most.
If someone is coming to us with feedback, they may be sparing us a lot of hard work required to identify areas of improvement.
The least we can do is thank them profusely for the gift they just gave us and get to work.
Whenever I receive feedback about something I can improve and want to work on, I note it down. Over time, this list becomes my feedback log.
Keeping a list of the items I am trying to get better at is a way to hold myself accountable. I go through this feedback log every few weeks and reflect on the progress (or lack of progress) I have seen so far.
This helps me making sure I make the most of the feedback I was generously given and use it to gradually get better. I try to spend some time every week to work on some of the most important items on the feedback log.
Doing this helps me well beyond the result of addressing feedback. It also helps me ground my identity as someone who can accept feedback gracefully and use it as a tool to keep growing every day.
A few simple changes in perspective helped me change my view on feedback. I went from seeing it as a threat to my own self-worth to a stepping stone to become a better version of myself.
The results of this attitude compound over time as I keep focusing my energy towards addressing the most critical feedback items.
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