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The Right Way to Respond to Negative Feedback


Feedback, as they say, is a gift. Research bears this out, suggesting that it’s a key driver of performance and leadership effectiveness. Negative feedback in particular can be valuable because it allows us to monitor our performance and alerts us to important changes we need to make. And indeed, leaders who ask for critical feedback are seenas more effective by superiors, employees, and peers, while those who seek primarily positive feedback are rated lower in effectiveness.

But processing and acting on negative feedback is not always easy. It can make usdefensive, angry, and self-conscious, which subsequently impairs our effectiveness. What’s more, we can’t take all feedback we receive at face value. While critical feedback can frequently be given objectively and with the purest of motives, it can also be inaccurate and/or nefarious in nature: a coworker who wants to throw us off our game; a boss who has completely unachievable expectations; an employee who is scared to speak truth to power; a friend who projects her own issues onto us. It’s hard to know what is real and what should be filtered out.

There are plenty of resources available on how to ask for critical feedback, but there’s comparatively little guidance on how to navigate the hard feedback we receive. Here are five empirically supported actions to help you hear critical feedback openly and calmly, intentionally mine it for insight, and harness it to improve without collateral damage to your confidence and self-concept.

1. Don’t rush to react

In my 15 years as an organizational psychologist and executive coach, I’ve seen just about every possible reaction to critical feedback. Some especially memorable responses have included punching a wall, accusing me of making their feedback up, and crying so uncontrollably that we had to reschedule the session. (Encouragingly, all three ended up making dramatic improvements once their initial emotions faded.)

All of these reactions are completely understandable. As renowned psychologist William Swann put it, when humans receive feedback that conflicts with our self-image, we “suffer the severe disorientation and psychological anarchy that occurs when [we] recognize that [our] very existence is threatened.”

As part of a research program for my new book, Insight, my team conducted dozens of interviews with people who’d made dramatic improvements in their self-awareness. These participants reported frequently seeking critical feedback that would help them improve. But they weren’t necessarily fond of the experience. One participant, a non-profit executive, quipped, “Are you kidding? I hate hearing that I’m not perfect!” We found this reassuring — even the most self-aware among us are still human. But as we dug deeper into what they did next, we saw a clear pattern. Where so many of us pressure ourselves to push past our emotions and respond right away, these highly self-aware people gave themselves days or even weeks to bounce back from difficult feedback before deciding what to do next.

Specifically, many reported actively working to change the way they saw the feedback — they’d think of upsetting or surprising information as helpful and productive data — something psychologists call cognitive reappraisal. One simple yet effectivereappraisal tool is affect labeling, or putting our feelings into words. For example, after a critical performance review, we might simply acknowledge, “I feel blindsided and a little scared.”

Another technique is self-affirmation. Taking a few minutes to remind ourselves of another important aspect of our identity, besides the one being threatened, lessensour physical response to threat and helps us be more open to critical feedback. For example, if you’ve learned your team sees you as a micromanager, you might remember that you’re a supportive friend, devoted community member, or loving parent. When we see the bigger picture, it helps us put feedback in its proper perspective. Then and only then should we decide how to respond.

2. Get more data

It can be disorienting to learn that people don’t always see us the way we see ourselves. I once had a coaching client named Kim, a smart, dedicated manager whose entire world had just been turned upside down by a 360 report. Even though she’d struggled with feelings of insecurity her whole career, her colleagues saw her as aggressive and arrogant in meetings. She had no idea what she was doing to create this perception. (Despite the benefits of some 360s, they can leave many questions unanswered.)

We can’t act on feedback until we truly understand it. Especially when we hear something new, it’s usually a good idea to ask a few trustworthy sources whether they’ve noticed the same behavior. Not only does this give us more detail about what we are doing to create a certain impression, it helps us avoid overcorrecting based on one person’s opinion. After all, as Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius stated, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact.”

But who should we ask? Our interviews with highly self-aware people provide some helpful guidance. Surprisingly, most reported keeping their feedback circle relatively small. One customer service manager noted, “I get feedback all the time, but not from all the people. I rely on a small, trusted group I know will tell me the truth.” These “loving critics,” as we named them, were people they trusted and who would be brutally honest with them. Loving critics don’t necessarily need to be people we’re close to (even complete strangers have strangely accurate perceptions of our personalities). Out of the three loving critics Kim selected, I’d argue that the one she knew least well gave her the most valuable information.

With the help of her loving critics, Kim was soon able to build a better picture in her mind of how her behavior was coming across, which gave her the power to make different choices. Months later, Kim’s boss told me that she’d gone from one of his bottom performers to his most valued team member. If she hadn’t taken the time to understand the feedback she was given, it’s hard to imagine such a dramatic transformation.

 

3. Find a harbinger

Even when we’ve significantly improved a certain behavior, it doesn’t mean that the people around us will automatically notice. As leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith has aptly noted, it can be harder to change the perceptions of our behavior than the behavior itself. And if we spend energy improving based on feedback from our colleagues, but those same colleagues don’t notice, it can be discouraging.

For this reason, I also work with my coaching clients on the “public relations” aspects of their behavior. Shortly after receiving their feedback report, we choose one highly visible and symbolic action that will show how serious they are about changing. I once worked with Paul, who ran the radiology department in a large regional medical center. When I interviewed his employees, their morale was suffering. They told me that Paul didn’t seem to understand or care about their day-to-day challenges, which was frustrating and demoralizing.

In my interviews, I kept hearing the same example. A few weeks prior, the doorstop in the entrance to the radiology department had broken off. Employees transporting patients in stretchers had to precariously prop the door open with their hip and quickly squeeze the stretcher through before it closed. They’d put in a work order but weeks later, the doorstop still wasn’t fixed. This relatively minor issue clearly had spoken volumes to Paul’s team.

The plan that Paul created contained many excellent, longer-term strategies to gain his team’s trust. But before he even started executing it, we selected his harbinger. Tomorrow, he would walk down to the department during the busiest time of the day and, in plain view, replace the doorstop with his own two hands. Paul’s employees immediately noticed and appreciated this symbolic step, which made it far easier to spot the other changes he made moving forward.

4. Don’t be a lonely martyr

Getting critical feedback can feel like an exercise in isolation, and not just because it’s uncomfortable in the moment. Research by Francesca Gino, Paul Green, and Brad Staats has shown that we tend to avoid people after they give us negative feedback. And while it can certainly feel easier to see ourselves as the aggrieved party in a vast workplace conspiracy, sequestering ourselves from people who tell us the truth is a big mistake. Gino and her colleagues found that participants who did so experienced declines in performance one year later.

If anything we should pull people who tell us the truth even closer. Marshall Goldsmith and Howard Morgan tracked the behavior changes of more than 11,000 leaders after completing a leadership development program. Those who engaged in an ongoing dialogue with their coworkers showed dramatic improvement, while the improvement of those who didn’t “barely exceeded random chance.”

In this regard, critical feedback can be an excellent excuse to reset our relationships—and with the right approach, our biggest critics can become our greatest champions. When I was conducting interviews with the coworkers of a new coaching client, Rachel, I learned that her colleagues in another department felt disrespected by her lack of proactive communication.

Because the two heads of that department were critical to Rachel’s success, she decided to make the first move. She thanked them for their feedback, sincerely apologized for her part in their conflict, and suggested they reset their expectations moving forward. She also committed to meet with them monthly to seek suggestions on how she could be a better partner. A few months later, she received a glowing email from them thanking her for her responsiveness and partnership. As Rachel worked to make changes, they continued to celebrate with her when things went well and gave her the benefit of the doubt when they didn’t.

5. Remember that change is just one option

Most successful, ambitious people probably believe that when a behavior is limiting their success, they should work to change it. However, the best way to manage our weaknesses isn’t always clear cut. Sometimes feedback can illuminate flaws that are tightly woven into the very fabric of who we are.

Levi, a successful entrepreneur, is an illustrative example. For most of his career, he saw himself as an effective leader and strong communicator. But after a 360 process, he discovered that his team didn’t share his opinion  not only were their ratings consistently much lower than his self-ratings, the lowest score they gave him was for the competency of communication.

Levi embarked on a process to better understand this feedback and came to the informed conclusion that he might never be genuinely personable, no matter how hard he tried. But instead of stopping there (which may have been tempting), he knew he needed to come clean to his team. He called a company meeting where he admitted that he wasn’t the most likable or communicative leader. Next, he explained to his team that some behaviors were a personal shortcoming and certainly no indication that he didn’t care about or value them. Finally, he asked for their help and understanding as he worked to navigate this weakness.

To Levi’s great surprise, his employees were instantly more understanding. Over time, they even began to (lovingly) joke about some of his communication blunders. Levi saw that as a signal that they were more on his side, even if he couldn’t be the perfect leader. Sometimes the best response to critical feedback is to admit our flaws — first to ourselves, and then to others — while setting expectations for how we are likely to behave. When we let go of the things we cannot change, it frees up the energy to focus on changing the things we can.


Tasha Eurich, PhD, is an organizational psychologist, researcher, and New York Times bestselling author. She is the principal of The Eurich Group, a boutique executive development firm that helps companies—from start-ups to the Fortune 100—succeed by improving the effectiveness of their leaders and teams. Her newest book, Insight, delves into the connection between self-awareness and success in the workplace.

 

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Bring in Outside Experts to Mentor Your Team

Organizations depend increasingly on independent, temporary workers, even for mission-critical work. We call this subset of freelancers who do strategic work in companies or nonprofit organizations agile talent. They contribute technical expertise that an organization does not already have to a critical project or initiative. By providing temporary support, they make it possible for organizations to resource their critical activities more cost efficiently.

Many of the benefits of agile talent have been widely reported. But a benefit that has received less attention is the contribution they can make as mentors to an organization’s full-time staff. Tapping into your outside experts to help in the development of internal employees is a valuable way to address the needs of both. Experts are often looking for ways to help junior people in their profession, and younger employees are hungry for training and development. For example, research by Google, reported by Jolt, points out that less than 20% of tech employees in Silicon Valley believes the training they receive fits their goals and needs.

A practical framework for mentoring is based on the career stages work of Gene Dalton and Paul Thompson, former professors at HBS. Their research has found that high-performing professionals tend to transit through four distinct stages of development:

  1. Apprentice: Helper and learner; establishes a reputation for trust, teamwork, and cultural congruity.
  2. Individual contributor: Builds recognized functional expertise; makes a significant independent contribution; demonstrates accountability and ownership for results.
  3. Mentor/coach: Contributes through others as a formal manager, an idea leader, a project owner, or an informal employee developer.
  4. Sponsor/strategist: Sets or influences strategic direction and important decisions; exercises power on behalf of the organization; prepares future leaders.

Stages 3 and 4 are developmental stages where mentoring skills are typically developed and sharpened. And, it turns out, agile talent in stages 3 and 4 is often eager to provide coaching and mentorship to junior professionals working with them.

But it’s not only their career stage that makes agile talent potentially excellent mentors. For example, successful agile talent is, almost by definition, entrepreneurial. They are actively involved in building their business, developing their strategies, growing and maintaining strong customer relationships, and creating a service offering that’s attractive to their market. This type of entrepreneurial mindset is extremely helpful and is very often lacking among full-time employees who don’t have significant market or competitive contact.

How can an organization encourage the mentoring of employees by their critical outside experts? We suggest five steps that leaders can take.

Establish Informal Coaching Relationships

Experts are often brought onboard an organization to solve a crisis. When this is the case, it may be difficult to arrange for a formal coaching relationship with members of your full-time staff. And it may be difficult for agile talent working remotely to provide mentorship to those on-site. But when circumstances are more supportive, stage 3 or 4 agile talent may be eager to support the development of young high potentials or junior professionals in your organization who would benefit from a coaching relationship. In past work, my arrangements with outside experts always included time for them to teach me as well as work with them. These experiences were some of the most valuable of my career.

Provide Channels for Sharing Knowledge

Managers tap these outside experts for help because of their knowledge and experience. Beyond the project contribution, technical and functional experts should be asked to share their expertise and educate the team on best practice insights and new innovations in their field of expertise. A brown bag lunch with the team, for example, helps to build the team’s relationship with these experts and reinforces collaboration and engagement. More-formal methods, such as after-action reviews, are useful too.

Involve Experts as Part of the Brain Trust

Smart project managers know that bringing a team together to collaboratively solve tough problems both builds teamwork and improves performance. Extending this participation to agile talent is a potentially powerful opportunity for young professionals to see new or alternative approaches to problem solving. And it is very likely to lead to closer relationships and greater developmental engagement between outside experts and internal staff employees.

Engage Experts in Providing Developmental Feedback

Many years ago an HBS colleague asked me if I was interested in developmental feedback. I was, and his comment was tough to hear: “You are talented but sloppy. You need to be more organized and disciplined.” It was one of the most helpful bits of advice I’ve ever received. While painful to hear, over the past couple of decades I’ve learned to appreciate the clarity and sincerity of his comments. It put me on a developmental journey that has made me a better professional. In the years that have followed, I’ve consistently done something similar, asking my students and consulting clients if they are interested in feedback. They almost always are.

Connect with Experts’ Networks  

Agile talent is often connected to different networks than the internal team members with whom they are working. I’m frequently asked: Who has interesting ideas? What are you reading? What are the innovations you find most exciting? As a result, I spend a fair amount of time introducing people to one another and suggesting networks to join or individuals to meet. We encourage managers and team members to seek the advice of outside experts and to explicitly have the conversation about who is worth getting to know and where interesting or innovative things are happening.

We live in a time when keeping up technically and professionally is increasingly important and difficult. Mentoring is one of the important tools that managers have to contribute to the development of their team. Utilizing agile talents as mentors and coaches is a way to multiply the value of an organization’s investment in outside experts.

Jon Younger is the founder of the Agile Talent Collaborative, a non-profit research organization, and works with several start-ups in the on-demand staffing space. He is the co-author of several books in talent management and HR, including Agile Talent (HBR Press, 2016). He teaches in the executive education faculties of the University of Michigan and the Indian School of Business. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW: https://hbr.org/2017/01/bring-in-outside-experts-to-mentor-your-team?referral=00203&utm_source=newsletter_management_tip&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=tip_date&spMailingID=17082340&spUserID=OTA1Njk1ODMwMAS2&spJobID=1002089593&spReportId=MTAwMjA4OTU5MwS2

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