How to receive feedback and enact behavioural change
11 Feb 19
Receiving and acting on performance feedback needn't be a prickly, awkward affair, Amanda Bradley explains
A strong feedback culture is central to development, engagement and team trust.
According to HR agency WorkHuman, 43% of engaged employees receive feedback at least weekly, compared to only 18% of disengaged employees.
So, whether you want to create an engaged workforce or feel more connected as an employee, getting to grips with giving, receiving and handling unhelpful feedback is key.
It’s not all in the giving…
We give each other feedback all the time, but not always obviously or helpfully.
Imagine a boss tossing an aside over their shoulder, a peer giving the feedback sandwich (compliment, constructive feedback, compliment) or a leader saying a quick “well done” in passing.
There is also the more helpful approach to giving feedback (see below the main article for some tips). Whether well presented or not, feedback can show us how we are perceived and highlight things we can do better.
So, instead of focusing on how to give feedback, I’ll focus on how to receive feedback.
…it’s in the receiving
I’m often told by clients that they can’t give feedback because they’re scared about how it will be received. And when we receive feedback, we can feel like we don’t have a legitimate platform or the right tools to be able to seek clarification or to ask for help in changing the behaviours highlighted.
People sometimes react badly to feedback because they’re afraid, embarrassed or ashamed.
When we feel ashamed, we can either withdraw, reject what’s being said, attack ourselves or attack the other person. These complicated reactions can happen with complimentary as well as constructive feedback.
Either way, if we can set aside our feelings, we can seek out the helpful nuggets of insight being offered to us.
Regardless of where we are in the pecking order, receiving feedback well can start a cultural revolution in our teams. When you receive feedback well, you improve yourself.
People see that improvement and want to know how you did it. Receiving feedback gracefully encourages the feedback giver to do it again and they become further invested in your development.
So, how do we receive feedback?
1. Get ready If we can’t set our feelings aside yet, when someone asks permission to give feedback, we can say “not right now, but soon” – set a time to receive the feedback and prepare yourself.
2. Listen with gratitude Listen attentively to the person, assuming they intend to help you be even more awesome. Reiterate their points in your own words to make sure you’ve understood and to demonstrate that you’ve heard them. Thank them for the feedback.
3. Ask questions to understand, not to be understood Resist the temptation to explain yourself. Ask the person questions instead. Questions ground us in the here and now, and stop us attacking ourselves in our heads.
Suspend your judgement about the feedback as much as possible and seek to understand their point of view.
“Can you tell me more about that?”, or “what words particularly resonated?” are a good place to start. Remind yourself that their feedback is about your actions, not about who you are as a person. Breathe easy!
4. Agree on next steps It’s OK not to agree with the feedback you’re given. Some of the most powerful feedback experiences start with admitting that the information is new to you.
Saying something like “I don’t recognise that behaviour, but that doesn’t mean I’m not doing it” can start a great partnership to help you change something you didn’t even know you were doing.
Saying “please can you tell me next time it happens again?” puts you and the feedback giver on the same team, working together to understand the behaviour.
5. Decide if you want to act Up until now, you’ve simply been receiving and understanding a viewpoint. You’ll have heard how the other person would like things to go in future. But you’ve yet to decide whether to change your behaviour.
We are the only people who can change how we act. So, we need to make an honest decision about whether we want to or not. If the feedback doesn’t sit right, you can agree to observe when it happens again instead of committing to make an immediate change.
You could ask people who know you well whether they recognise the behaviour. Or you could simply put the feedback on the shelf and just watch. See if it crops up again.
Mining for feedback
If you recognise the feedback and want to change, ask the person to partner with you to notice when you use the new behaviour as much as when you slip back.
Agree to speak after a few weeks to see how it’s going. But the important thing is to decide what you’re going to do rather than kid yourself that you’ll act then do nothing.
That’s the same as hanging on to an unwanted Christmas gift and never using it. It’s a waste for the giver and the receiver.
As I said earlier, feedback isn’t always useful. But when you receive a throwaway comment or unhelpful comment, you can also take the lead.
“Don’t do that again”, or even worse, the ‘Great job’ email, can have learnings in them, too. You can take the reins and make something actionable that you can choose to replicate or change in the future. We are all entitled to know what to do to be more effective at work.
So, ask for time. Explain that you want to learn and would like to understand their comment more. This signals you want more detail and gives them time to reflect and get it for you!
Then, coach them through the good feedback steps described below.
Ask them to think about the situation and help you by being specific. Ask them exactly what you did, how that made them feel and what the impact was on your work.
And like magic, you’ve gathered yourself useful feedback – using the same finishing steps as the receiving model, you can agree next steps and decide what you want to do.
Turning feedback to behavioural change
Behavioural changes don’t happen overnight. They take daily practice.
Setting daily objectives and rewards for yourself is a great way to hold yourself accountable to act. And if you’ve been given feedback, staying connected and partnering with the person who gave you the feedback makes it more likely they’ll have your back and help you identify more blind spots.
You’ll also have a mandate to do the same for them. Frustration evolves into partnership, shame gives way to meaningful relationships and individuals become teams, all thanks to carefully receiving feedback.
Giving feedback: essential points
1. Check in with yourself
What are your motives for giving this feedback? Do you want to help the other person be their best? Or are you using feedback to feel better about yourself, express frustration or apportion blame? Feedback lands better and is more likely to result in change if your motives are positive.
2. Ask permission
We never know what’s going on for other people. They might have just had to put their dog down or just finished a difficult meeting. By asking permission and setting a time to give feedback, you’ll get a better result than surprising the person with it.
3. Be specific
Be clear about the situation you’re describing, what happened and how you felt. I find the “When you did this, I felt this” structure helpful. Be brave and use one of the four big feelings (mad, sad, scared and glad) to guide you as you explain how the person’s actions affected you.
4. Share what it meant to you
Share a little of yourself to create further trust. Explaining how you make meaning of the event helps add context, for example, “I was sad when I heard what you said because it sounded like you didn’t value the sacrifice and late nights I’d worked to hit the deadlines.”
5. Contract for change
Outline to the other person what you would like to happen instead and ask if they’re willing to do that. Even if they say no, you’ll understand them more than when you started.
About the author
Amanda Bradley is an executive coach at Liberty EQ