I’ve been giving and getting feedback for a while now, as an employee and as an organizational leader. I have to say I don’t think I’ve always been particularly good at processing my own feedback. Over the past few years, I’ve learned to use a repeatable process when receiving feedback, and coaching others toward processing theirs. Using this approach helps me to make sure that the feedback given is addressed in healthy and productive way.
Step 1: Internalizing the feedback
When a person first gets feedback on an area to improve, the gut reaction is to become defensive. This is totally normal and expected. When this happens to you, notice it and acknowledge it to yourself. This is your body defending itself from a situation that feels threatening, and is a natural biological response. Allow those defensive feelings to exist and wait until they wane. Then read the feedback again, and begin to unpack it until you feel you really understand it. Ask for specific examples of the behavior if your manager has them, and if not, ask your manager or peers to call out examples for you when they notice it so that you can become more aware of the behavior as it’s happening. It can be hard to see yourself as others see you, without some help.
Step 2: Finding the source
For me, there is a period where the defensiveness fades away and a small voice inside admits that the feedback is valid. This is hard, but a super important shift. I now take time to reflect on why the behavior is happening.
To use an example, a few years ago I got some feedback that I was being too prescriptive in critique meetings, which made designers feel frustrated. In order to find the source of the issue, I thought a bit about why I was being prescriptive. I wrote down my thoughts about where the behavior was coming from and what the deeper motivations were.
At the time I was new to my role and wanted to prove myself to my team. I wanted to know that the design solution we came up with would be in small part because of my direct contribution. I wanted to know for sure that I was adding value. I worried that as a manager I was “overhead” and felt that my contributions as a new organizational leader were harder to see. I was telling myself stories that unless a solution was mine I wasn’t being useful enough in my role.
Step 3: Look at it from the other perspective
I then spent some time reflecting on how my behavior affected others. The designers felt in those moments that I was doing their job for them; that I lacked confidence in them; that they were not capable of coming up with a solution to the feedback. My first role as a manager was to empower my team and in an attempt to provide more of a service to them, I was losing the ability to provide my primary service.
By reflecting in this way I became more aware of the affects of my behavior, and I was able to set a new intention. In critiques, I could still give feedback on where there were strengths and issues in the designs being shown, without necessarily offering a specific solution. If I did have an idea to share, I could preface it with “An example of an idea you could consider is…” so that the designer knows it’s one of several good options, but they are in charge of selecting the solution.
Step 4: Enlist help as you work on your growth area
Knowing that I needed to be less prescriptive, I then needed to be honest with my team that I was going to work on it. In a critique meeting I let the team know I was working on being less prescriptive and to call out the behavior when they notice it. This gave me the freedom to not be 100% perfect right away, and for my team to help me in my learning process. It opened a direct dialog between me and the feedback givers, so that we could talk openly about it.
Step 5: Check in over time to see if the behavior improves
When mentoring others on processing feedback, I ask the person to follow up after a few weeks to check in and see if they are improving. It provides a bit of closure for both parties, and fosters open and direct communication with the feedback giver.
The thing I’ve been continuously heartened by in my career is that many of my work relationships have become much stronger after feedback than they would have been if there was no feedback in the first place. The process of working through your growth areas openly with your team makes you more connected with them and builds a deeper sense of trust. They can see that the intentions behind your behavior are good and that you take the time to value their perspective.
Obviously no one is perfect. Every one of us is going to get feedback in our career. The difference between people who evolve and those who don’t is how they respond and learn from it.
I’ve found that if I follow these repeatable steps I’m able to do a better job of addressing the feedback I get, and move past it more quickly. For me, using this process works well because it forces me out of defensive mode into a place of taking 100% responsibility. It forces me to have honest conversations about important issues that can be otherwise uncomfortable.