Why feedback matters (and how to respond to negative feedback)

As part of my own development, I recently received 360 degree feedback from peers, my direct reports and the management layer above me.  It daunting to hear what people think and feel about you, so in this post, let’s look at why feedback matters, and how you might respond to it.

Let me start by saying that feedback is often subjective – linked to emotions, rather than facts or events.  It’s also invariably related to most recent (or most memorable) interactions with someone.  Finally, feedback is open to interpretation – the way we understand someone’s feedback is based on our own emotional response. But by gathering feedback from others, we can make our actions more effective, we can adapt our behaviours, learn how to connect to others and ultimately gain greater satisfaction from the greater engagement we achieve.

When I asked for feedback, I felt two things – on the one hand, as a leader, I need to understand how I’m perceived, the impact of my behaviours, the effectiveness of my communication and the level to which I engage those with whom I interact.  On  the other hand, as with any human being, I felt nervous to hear what people really think and feel about me.  Are those I ask going to re-affirm my own self doubt and insecurities?  Might they even identify flaws and failures that I wasn’t aware of? Don’t worry, if you feel a little nervous about asking for feedback, that is a good sign – it means that you are likely to listen and respond to the feedback.

For my feedback (and as a classic ENTP personality type), I wanted to get maximum impact, so asked my colleagues to provide it anonymously.  I then asked a trusted source to walk through the feedback with me.  This allowed those I asked to feel freer to share their views, by channeling their comments via someone else.  By asking the third party to walk through the feedback with me, I also avoided the human urge to rush to the negatives, and to listen to all the feedback delivered, both positive and developmental.  This helps to get a balanced view and focus on broad themes, not specifics.

When you first digest feedback, although it’s really hard, it’d better to resist the urge to immediately draw conclusions, assign actions or make judgements.  Instead, once you’ve been through the feedback once, take a break, and let the good and bad settle.  When you next review the feedback, over a cup of tea in a relaxed settings, start with the good – what are you doing well?  How are you positively impacting those around you?  What can you do more of?  This opens you up to a more receptive mind frame – it’s OK to feel flattered by the positive words, because you worked hard to achieve these successes!  It’s also OK to thank people for this feedback.

But what about the negative feedback?  Firstly, accept that when people take the time to share feedback, it’s usually coming from a good place.  They are trying to be constructive, and not looking to cause offence.  Trying to accept the feedback in the way it was intended may be hard, so think about it from an outside perspective. As with the positive feedback, reflect first, act second.  If you need clarity, that is OK, but ultimately, even if it feels uncomfortable, it’s a good exercise in humility to accept how others perceive you.  Reading development feedback in conjunction with the positive will help you focus on the most effective actions and changes to progress.

Finally, validate your thoughts with a trusted colleague or peer.  It’s good to check your understanding with someone else.  Negative feedback is not really negative – it’s just a different view, and one that can ultimately help you make positive change.  So what would I suggest doing with negative feedback?  Read it, reflect on it, turn it into a positive and take action – and don’t forget to thank the person who shared it!

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