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How to Open Yourself Up to Feedback at Work

January 30, 2018

Feedback at work can be tough to swallow – but it's critical for your professional development.

feedback at work

In a recent team meeting, we played a little game of trivia about each other. It was a fun way to get to know each other and build strong team spirit. I thoroughly enjoyed it...though, there was a big surprise: one of the questions was "What do you think of Mavis?" Several people chose “chipper” and another person said “jackhammer." None of the multiple choice options were words I would have thought about characterizing myself with. Luckily, my coworkers are kind, no negative words were in this multiple-choice question. I was happy to know what my team thinks of me, but there was just a tiny bit of discomfort in my gut nonetheless.

Does this scenario sound familiar to you? Everyone holds an image about themselves – whether it is hard-working, intelligent, kind, persistent, or laid-back, it's usually some positive description of what you think makes up your “uniqueness.” Whenever you receive any information that departs from this core image, your sense of self is threatened. There is an internal dissonance – both cognitively and emotionally – making it hard to accept that the information can be true. In fact, I have had many friends tell me that they don’t like feedback for the same reason. They think they already know their strengths and weaknesses. If they hear anything new about themselves, it usually is either incorrect or not useful.

If feedback is so hard to swallow, why is it we’re talking so much about feedback these days? Why is it that organizations continue to implement development programs such as 360-degree feedback, or other alternatives, to provide structures that ask people to give feedback to one another on a regular basis? Why do we emphasize “providing feedback” as a key leadership competency if no one ever wants to hear it or deliver it?

The answer is simple. Feedback IS important. No child can grow up to be a responsible adult without hearing lots of feedback about themselves. They use feedback to learn how to do things better, how to work with others, and how to turn negative emotions into positive ones. The growing journey should NOT stop when you reach adulthood or enter the workplace. It’s equally important for working adults. 

With great sympathy to people out there who hate feedback or find discomfort in receiving feedback, here are a few tips to get the feedback you need for self-development:

  • Identify your trusting circle.

    Most people don't like giving others negative feedback. So, if you really want to get that honest feedback, you will have to develop your own trusting circle. They can be your teammates, your supervisors, your direct reports, or your customers. Whoever they might be, you will have to mutually trust each other.

    • Let them know that, by giving you honest and constructive feedback, they will not jeopardize their existing relationship with you. Quite the opposite, they might help create a better working relationship.

      Related: Encouraging Honest Feedback for Leaders
    • Tell them the reason you chose them: because you trust them and you'd like to grow with them. Most people will feel flattered that you would even consider them to be part of your trusting circle.

    • If the person says no, don’t be discouraged; chances are, once they know you are serious about getting real feedback and there are no repercussions, they will open up and give you their two cents.     

  • Write it down before you react.

    Be an observer when you receive your own feedback. In other words, you don’t want to dismiss feedback because it is contradictory to your own beliefs. When you stay in the observer mode, this is much easier. A few ways to do that is to simply write down any feedback and information during a feedback session.

    • Spend your energy on understanding the feedback – what was the situation, the context, the behavior, and outcome?

    • Ask questions about what the other person thinks you can do differently. Remember, this is a reality in the mind of feedback-givers. It might not ring true to you, but this is true to their perception. Do this like you are a student taking notes in a workshop – a workshop about you, and only you.

    • Save the digestion and introspection for later. 

  • Focus on actionable feedback.

    We are who we are. We can’t really change our personality but we probably can change our behaviors if we’re committed to it. For example, you can’t turn an introverted person into an extraverted person overnight. But, introverts can learn how to be effective in social situations by engaging in targeted behaviors.

    • Use the notes you have gathered to create a plan with a clear focus of learning a new way to do certain things.

    • Write down steps you can start today and hold yourself accountable.

    • Review these with your trusted circle at a later date to discuss your progress and revisit the plan.

  • Exercise the muscle of feedback.

    In order to break the cycle of no-feedback, you will have to make getting feedback a routine. You don’t need to wait until the end of the year to get feedback – you should aim to do this as often as you can. It can be quarterly, monthly, weekly, or even daily. 

    Put it in your calendar, but not as a task to check off. Instead, block off a time on a regular basis for you to be able to engage in these types of activities. Just think of it as an exercise regimen you do – the more you do it, the more it will feel automatic and enjoyable, and the easier it becomes.

  • Put aside your fear. 

    Ask yourself, what’s the worst that could happen if you ask and receive feedback? A bruised ego? Perhaps. An awkward and unpleasant conversation? Possibly. If you have followed the tips outlined above, there is really nothing you should fear. Just like exercise, you will get sore and experience discomfort when you “stretch” yourself to your limit. But, over the long run, you will be a better athlete.

    You don’t need to start with something big – allow one little step to lead to another and another. Before you know it, you can be a good sport in getting the feedback you need for self-development. 

So, did you enjoy this blog? (See, I’m trying to practice what I preach – getting your feedback!) 

If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy our whitepaper, Where Has Performance Management Gone?

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Mavis Kung, Ph.D. Mavis Kung, Ph.D. is the Manager of Research and Development based in the Pittsburgh office of PSI. She focuses on conducting validation studies, acting as an internal technical expert on selection for project consultants and clients, analyzing assessment data to determine selection system effectiveness, validity, and fairness and providing recommendations for system improvement and development.