“Practical Tips on the Art of Receiving Feedback” or “The Critical First Step Is Not Enough” Part 1

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b2ap3_thumbnail_Climbers-resized-for-blog-photo.jpgArticle by Jim Jensen...

Neil Armstrong’s small step for man and giant leap for mankind may not have taken on the same significance had he climbed right back into the lunar module and gone home. It was subsequent steps that made that historic journey complete. Yet clearly, that first step was critical and necessary in order for the journey to continue.


Many leaders these days are sincerely engaged in their own journeys of growth and discovery. If you are reading this you are probably one of them. You know that accurate, constructive feedback from your peers and direct reports is a powerful tool for discovery. You also know that the best way to get constructive feedback is to ask for it. That’s the first step. It’s a critical step and a valuable skill. But the first step was not enough for Neil, and it’s not enough for you to ensure the powerful growth that can occur when your people take the risk to share with you their perceptions.


Feedback is one of the most frequently heard terms in leadership and team development, yet giving and receiving feedback are two of the most challenging skills to master. Because most of the literature out there seems to be on how to give feedback effectively, this article will focus on receiving. Receiving feedback can be an incredibly rewarding skill once you figure out how to do it well. “Well” of course is a relative term, but if you can improve your effectiveness at this skill, you will improve your effectiveness as a leader.


People who work together have feedback to give; there is no doubt about that. In some cases they are hungry for the opportunity to share their perceptions in order to support a leader they value and respect. In our work with leaders and teams we have found that it is only those “enlightened leaders” who develop the skill of routinely saying things like the following: “Can you give me some feedback on that?” “If you have feedback for me I really want to hear it.” Or “OK, help me understand the impact of what I just said or how I said it.”


Asking for feedback is one of the best and perhaps only ways to open the door; the door to incredibly valuable discussions that can help you become more aware of your impact on others, and truly grow in your ability to effectively interact and lead. The people who work for and with you day to day have more valuable information about you than the best executive coach money can buy. You could participate in a high-quality leadership development program and receive valuable information from 360 assessments (not that there’s anything wrong with that, in fact there is plenty right with that), but inevitably when people read through their 360 reports they find themselves asking things like, “I wonder who said that?” or “I wonder what they meant by that?” Feedback should never be the end of a discussion; it is most valuable at the beginning. The value of having relationships where you can solicit and receive direct feedback is that you can ask those questions aloud, and in real time. 


Asking for feedback is the critical first step, as critical as Neil’s first step was to his historic walk. But what is far more critical is what you do, say or think immediately after someone takes the risk to offer his or her perceptions.


If you are in a position of power and you ask for feedback from someone, or a group of people, trust me, unless your emotional bank accounts are rock solid you just launched a veritable plethora of internal dynamics. Unspoken thoughts begin to flood the room. Thoughts like; Does he really want to know how we feel about that? Wow, this is great… but I won’t be able to say what I think in a way she can hear it! Will others support me on this or will they watch as the bus slowly rolls over me? I’d love to share my thoughts…but I would also love to keep my job!


Here are five things you should not do (unless your intent is to make sure that people will keep any future feedback to themselves).

  1. Immediately disagree. Say something like, “Oh, I don’t see it like that” or “I really don’t think I came across that way.”
  1. Don’t say anything at all. If you disagree in your heart, just keep your opinion to yourself and keep quiet – a surefire way to keep your people guessing and wondering if they just made one of those career-limiting comments. By the way, just saying “thank you” and walking away without another word is almost as bad as saying nothing at all. Unless they are rock solid in their relationship with you, it’s just another way to keep them guessing.
  1. Rationalize, justify or explain away your behavior. Say something like, “Well you need to understand where I was coming from and what I was thinking.”
  1. Get angry. Some people show anger by raising their voice or slamming a fist on the table. The more subtle ones just furrow their eyebrows and shake their heads ever so slightly. Either approach is an excellent way to put an end to undesirable information.
  1. Turn it back on them: “Are you sure you’re not playing a part in this?”


The intent of considering these things to not do is to help you appreciate the power and influence that you have simply by your position as “leader”. Many in leadership positions tend to underestimate that power. They might wonder, “What if I disagree?” “What if the feedback makes me angry?” “Why can’t I respond the way others would respond? Shouldn’t my responses be authentic?” While we would always recommend authenticity, you can authentically create wedges and damage relationships or you can be authentic and create trust and relationship strength. The fact is you can’t help but react emotionally to feedback, whether it’s positive, or challenging and uncomfortable. Regardless, there are other ways that you can still be authentic in your reactions without shooting, or shaking up, the messenger.


For the rest of the story, including six things you can do to make it more likely that people will trust you enough to share their perceptions, check out our next post for the conclusion of “Practical Tips on the Art of Receiving Feedback” or “The Critical First Step Is Not Enough” Part 2. 



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