How to master the science and skill of learning from feedback

By Charley Morrow on November 11, 2014

Everyone just loves to be told where they need to improve, right? Actually, no. Studies show that it’s entirely normal to feel some level of anxiety when it comes to receiving feedback. But hearing how you and your work are perceived need not be a deflating experience. In fact, highly effective leaders are often more skillful at receiving and capitalizing on feedback than others.

So, what’s their secret?

Well, the simple truth is there’s a “right way” and a “wrong way” to receive feedback. And the “wrong way” is usually triggered by the natural anxiety that occurs when a boss or colleague offers feedback or constructive criticism. It’s not uncommon for people to feel afraid, defensive, and attacked when faced with feedback, but nothing good can come from those feelings. In fact, the tension and anxiety can narrow your view and prevent you from understanding subtle elements of the feedback. Being in “fight or flight” mode will activate your body, but, you will lose some of your intelligence.

The “right way” to receive feedback is simply first to be open-minded. Now forgive me for quoting Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, but he makes the point beautifully when he writes, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Since few things can penetrate the closed mind of an “expert,” we can only really learn and grow when we look on the world and ourselves with the openness of a beginner. This is often easier said than done; however, there are certain tips and techniques you can use to improve your feedback-receiving skills.

  • The first thing to remember is that any feedback is always based on the perceptions of the person delivering the feedback, and that perceptions are not the same as judgments.
  • Another important fact to remember is that in most cases, the feedback you’re receiving is a direct reaction to your work behavior and not who you are as a person. This is a subtle but important distinction as it’s much, much easier to address/change a behavior than it is to address/change your identity.
  • Once you truly look on the feedback as an efficient way to learn more about yourself and improve in your career, the best thing you can do is ask questions.

When I work with clients I encourage them to ask the following questions with the requisite beginner’s mind:

How am I actually perceived by this person in the workplace?

You may agree or disagree with the perception but it’s critical to have that knowledge so you can have a better understanding of yourself and the person delivering your feedback. It’s hard to change people, but you can play an active role in changing perceptions if you adjust your behavior accordingly.

What does this person really mean to me and my career?

We can learn from all feedback, but the reality is that some feedback is more important than others. Receiving feedback from across the organization allows you to learn about yourself as well as really think about not only what the person is saying but also who is saying it. And the obvious fact is that the feedback you get from a trusted boss who has a vested interest in your success may be more helpful than feedback you may receive from anonymous surveys or other colleagues in the organization. And this brings us to the last key question.

Do you really need to do anything with the feedback?

Giving and receiving feedback is a process. Sometimes, skillful feedback delivered by a caring colleague is the crucial ingredient that leads to career-improving behavior change. But there’s no guarantee that all feedback you receive will have the same effect—or even be accurate or helpful. And while it’s always important to approach feedback with a “beginner’s mind” that doesn’t mean you have to be naïve. Be open to what people have to say, and be smart about what you do with the information.

So, let’s hear it. How do you stay open to “constructive criticism”? Have you been helped by the feedback you’ve received? Or do you have a feedback horror story to share?

Click here to learn more about receiving and giving feedback.


Posted in Blog

About Charley Morrow

Charley Morrow is SVP of Products and Partnerships at Linkage. In addition to working with clients, he has responsibility for the overall development and refinement of programs and assessments.
6 comments on “How to master the science and skill of learning from feedback
  1. Harrison says:

    Charley’s comparison of the closed mind of the expert and the open mind of the newbie reminds me of the aphorism, “when you’re green, you’re growing… once you get ripe you start to rot”.

  2. Amir Akbari says:

    Charley, I love the quote on the beginners mind.

    I’ll add the following advice – receive and accept the feedback completely. For example, never “correct” the feedback you receive. Feedback is always correct; as you stated it’s perception. Don’t give feedback on the feedback, or turn it into a learning moment. Feedback is a gift. If you say you don’t like it or try to give it back, you may never receive that gift again.

    Our job when receiving feedback is simple – receive, understand, and build trust to continue receiving honest feedback.

    Thanks for the post.

  3. richard regan says:

    I don’t agree with the notion that you can separate feedback from your behavior and identity. Aren’t they connected. For example you may have a servant leadership style based on your identity, why should feedback change that based on your behavior as a servant leader. Doesn’t this discussion throw values out the window as well as transformative engagement? What if the feedback is the result of differences that sacrifice inclusion. Am I to separate myself from the personal values that make me a unique person that brings creative and innovative perspectives to the workplace.

  4. Charley – I’d posit that the “right way” and “wrong way” are as elastic and ever dynamic as the situation calls for. Being open minded in the face of confrontational feedback may well be a bad choice. Being open minded to accepting “feedback” for a racist, sexist or ageistic (and all other prejudice) does not call for diplomacy – it calls for forthrightness to stop the abuse. Being open minded to something you are philosophically opposed to, with the giver having full knowledge. You are most likely addressing the common threads of common situations. Though I’d never assume. Cheers & keep writing – Ginger, CEO, Women Enjoying Beer

  5. Charley Morrow says:

    Hi Ginger,

    Thanks for reading and commenting. Your comment really got me thinking. Yes of course, we cannot subject ourselves to plain old bigotry. This is true. But, we also cannot stop ourselves from growing and thriving. We all need feedback. So, where is the balance?

    Interestingly, I was asked to write this blog post by a group of women who were completing a 360 assessment and who wanted to prepare themselves to really grow from the feedback. I would hate for them to first filter all of the feedback by asking “can I trust the feedback provider?” or “does he have a misogynistic agenda?” It seems as if right off they would be disinclined to learn and grow from the feedback. There might even be a hidden gem in well meaning but off-base feedback.

    Ultimately, we do have to “listen” to feedback and decide if it is something that we want to heed and act upon.

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