A lot of people would rather endure three months of Vancouver rain than receive feedback about their work. And that includes both positive and negative feedback. Any kind of commentary on workplace performance can elicit a host of uncomfortable emotions.
Workers commonly experience pre-feedback anxiety: “What are they going to say about me?”, post-feedback anger: “They don’t know enough about my job to comment!”, or just plain hurt: “How could they say that about me?” Some experience sadness: “What don’t they like about me?”, or feeling unappreciated: “Why can’t anyone see how hard I try?.”
Conversely, some squirm at positive feedback , embarrassed and unable to handle compliments.
Yet consider yourself lucky if you get any kind of feedback, as too many employers overlook this vital element altogether.
Receiving feedback and, of course, acting on it, can improve a career, help the business bottom line, add meaning to work life or help staff make changes that lead to greater satisfaction both at work and at home.
There are three main reasons why accepting feedback is so difficult.
1. Fear of being out of control.
When a colleague, subordinate or superior comments on work performance, you can feel hijacked. Suddenly, someone else appears to be setting YOUR agenda. And they may seem totally out of line.
Workers and leaders who react to feedback as a loss of control, respond in one of three ways:
First, they may discount and dismiss the feedback and its originator, feeling the source is uninformed. In this scenario, the potentially useful elements of the feedback are lost.
A second response is defensiveness. The feedback is repelled either through anger or withdrawal. A “who-do-you-think-you-are” tirade may occur (either in private or during the feedback conversation) or a stony silence removes the potential for feedback.
A third response is hurt that someone would be “critical” of one’s work. Overwhelmed, the individual may be unable to focus on the feedback and ends up losing an opportunity to improve.
Workers who feel out of control when receiving feedback may be perfectionists, overly self-critical – or egotistical. Subordinates with problems with authority or leaders with problems being in positions of authority (those uncomfortable in the leadership role or those who abuse power) may have trouble feeling safe, competent, and in control during feedback conversations.
In our experience, understanding that your reaction to either criticism or kudos can change is the key to dealing with defensiveness in response to feedback. Practice getting feedback in a controlled way by asking for it in the following ways:
First, conduct a self-assessment about your strengths and weaknesses. Second, set a meeting with work mates you trust and respect. Be sure to give this person an idea of how you see your performance and ask for feedback on your self- assessment and probe for further suggestions.
Once you’ve obtained the feedback, break it down into chunks. For example, if your colleagues said they agreed with your view that you needed to work more productively, look at what that may entail. “Working productively” may mean scheduling in more planning time, or having someone check aspects of work that cause self doubt or too much re-checking behaviour. It may include scheduling uninterrupted time to work on projects, re-examining deadlines and remembering to congratulate yourself for succeeding on a project.
2. What we do is who we are
The more workers mix up their roles – manager, sales person, boss, mentor, CEO, VP, or supervisor – with their sense of identity, the harder it can be to receive feedback about job performance. Any feedback is taken personally, making a compliment an excruciating ordeal: “I’ll never live up to these expectations”. Offering negative feedback to these individuals can be devastating.
Most people who confuse their role with their personal worth wait until a crisis occurs to make a change. The crisis further reinforces the mistaken belief that job performance is all about self-worth (e.g., I’m worthless because I missed that deadline) making receiving and implementing feedback even less likely next time.
Such people prefer not to hear about how they are doing while secretly yearning for that information. Yet, withdrawing from or postponing feedback is a common way of avoiding it until a crisis point is reached.
Typically, workers whose identities are fused with their work will use feedback to beat themselves up. They may call themselves names saying, “I’m such a schmuck for not doing X well.” They may blow up at others for giving them negative feedback or brush off an appreciative comment.
So separate your work role from your personal worth. Think of work as a hat you put on, wear all day and then take off at the end of the day. When receiving feedback, keep the hat firmly planted on your head and respond according to your role. For example, in response to feedback about being hard to contact via email, ask for an instance when this occurred and identify what you could have done differently, rather than telling yourself, “I’m so overwhelmed, I can’t even do my job”.
3. Painful past feedback experiences.
Everyone can tell a story of being hurt by inappropriate, clumsy or attack-style feedback. The unpleasant feelings can last a long time. A public dressing down, threats, name-calling; receiving memos about minor issues that go on your file – all can have serious consequences on the capacity to receive feedback. If you notice previous bad experiences are blocking you from obtaining information about your performance, analyze the hurtful situation.
It is important to remember the difference between feedback given to promote you and improve you versus attacks that are designed to undermine or discredit you. It is fairly simple to tell when someone is interested in your progress and the organization’s success. When feedback becomes toxic, it is usually not about the business or your career, it is about an interpersonal difficulty between you and the giver of the feedback.
Something between you and a colleague or superior has not been dealt with effectively and the feedback conversation is being used to continue the struggle. If this is occurring, consider addressing the interpersonal issue directly: “It’s hard for me to bring this up, but I wonder if we could talk about any discomfort that may exist between us before we meet about my performance appraisal?” This approach takes courage, but finding a way to address interpersonal tensions that get in the way will benefit both the worker and the organization.
Yes, feedback makes many uncomfortable. But recognize it as a gift. Those who offer it are making an investment in us, they are taking a risk too (they have no idea how we will react) and they hope we will be able to use their observations. It’s up to us to make that choice.
Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.