Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (even when it’s off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and, frankly, you’re not in the mood) - by Douglas Stone & Sheila Heen
February 21, 2018
Thanks for the Feedback is about the profound challenge of being on the receiving end of feedback - good or bad, right or wrong, flippant, caring, or callous. This book is not a pep talk on how to make friends with your mistakes. The primary purpose is to take an honest look at why receiving feedback is hard, and to provide a framework and some tools that can help you metabolize challenging, even crazy-sounding information and use it to fuel insight and growth.
The key player is not the giver of feedback, but the receiver. This transforms not only how to handle performance reviews on the job, but how we learn, lead, and behave in our professional roles and in our personal lives. The key variable to your growth is not your teacher or your supervisor. It’s you.
I'm ready for feedback! Let's have it!
Kathy’s Cliff Notes:
Why Feedback is Important:
Interestingly, when we give feedback, we notice that the receiver isn't good at receiving it. When we receive feedback, we notice that the giver isn’t good at giving it.
In today’s workplace, feedback plays a crucial role in developing talent, improving morale, aligning teams, solving problems, and boosting the bottom line. And yet, 51% of respondents in our recent study said their performance review was unfair or inaccurate, and one in four employees dreads their performance review more than anything else in their working lives.
Receiving feedback sits at the intersection of two needs: our drive to learn and our longing for acceptance. These needs run deep, and the tension between them is not going away.
The bold-faced benefits of receiving feedback well are clear: Our relationships are richer, our self-esteem more secure, and, of course, we learn - we get better at things and feel good about that.
Feedback-seeking behavior has been linked to higher job satisfaction, greater creativity on the job, faster adaptation in a new organization or role, and lower turnover. And seeking out negative feedback is associated with higher performance ratings.
The transformative impact of modeling is crucial at work as well. If you seek out coaching, your direct reports will seek out coaching. If you take responsibility for your mistakes, your peers will be encouraged to fess up as well; if you try out a suggestion from a coworker, they will be more open to trying out your suggestions.
The Feedback Challenge: Three Triggers that block feedback
Triggers are obstacles, but they aren’t only obstacles. Triggers are also information - a kind of map - that can help us locate the source of the trouble. Understanding our triggers and sorting out what set them off are the keys to managing our reactions and engaging in feedback conversations with skill.
There are 3 different types of triggers:
Truth Triggers: are set off by the substance of the feedback itself - it’s somehow off, unhelpful, or simply untrue. In response, we feel indignant, wronged and exasperated.
Relationship Triggers: are tripped by the particular person who is giving us the gift of feedback. All feedback is colored by the relationship between giver and receiver, and we can have reactions based on what we believe about the giver (they’ve got no credibility on this topic!) or how we feel treated by the giver (after all I’ve done for you, I get this kind of petty criticism?) Our focus shifts from the feedback itself to the audacity of the person delivering it.
Identity Triggers: are all about us. Whether the feedback is right or wrong, wise or witless, something about it has caused our identity - our sense of who we are - to come undone. We feel overwhelmed, threatened, ashamed, or off balance. Once it gets tripped, a nuanced discussion of our strengths and weaknesses is not in the cards. We’re just trying to survive.
Managing truth triggers is not about pretending there’s something to learn, or saying you think it’s right if you think it’s wrong. It’s about recognizing that it’s always more complicated than it appears and working hard to first understand. And even if you decide that 90 percent of the feedback is off target, that last golden 10 percent might be just the insight you need to grow.
Separate appreciation, coaching and evaluation
The very first task in assessing feedback is figuring out what kind of feedback we are dealing with. Broadly, feedback comes in three forms: appreciation (thanks), coaching (here’s a better way to do it all), and evaluation (here’s where you stand).
First Understand: Shift from “that’s wrong” to “tell me more”
In the context of receiving feedback, “understanding” what the other person means - what they see, what they’re worried about, what they’re recommending - is not easy. In fact, it’s flat-out hard. Ask questions to understand what’s actually being said.
Ask where the feedback is coming from. Feedback givers arrive at their labels in two steps: 1) they observe data, and 2) they interpret that data - they tell a story about what it means.
It’s useful to have a short list of good questions in your back pocket before you walk into any evaluation conversation.
Shift away from “that’s wrong” toward “tell me more: let’s figure out why we see this differently”. If the reason we see a particular piece of feedback differently isn’t simply that one of us is wrong, then what is the reason? There are two reason: we have different data, and we interpret the data differently. Therefore, we have to consciously and persistently choose to ask about their data and share our own.
Ask yourself what makes sense with what they’re saying, what seems worth trying, how you can shift around the meaning in some way that gives them the benefit of the doubt in terms of how the feedback might be helpful.
Your goal is to understand the feedback giver, and for them to understand you.
Feedback is often delivered in vague labels, and the giver and receiver don’t necessarily have the same definition of what those labels mean. When you’re receiving feedback and a label is used, don’t let it slip by. Ask for more explanation to ensure you’re hearing the intended feedback.
To understand your feedback, discuss where it is:
1) coming from: their data and interpretations
2) going to: advise, consequences, expectations.
See Your Blind Spots: Discover how you come across
We’re not only blind to certain things about ourselves; we’re also blind to the fact that we’re blind. Yet our blind spots are glaringly obvious to everybody else. This is a key cause for confusion in feedback conversations. Sometimes feedback that we know is wrong really is wrong. And sometimes it’s just feedback in our blind spot.
There are 3 blind spot amplifiers that amplify the gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us. These amplifiers are interrelated.
Amplifier 1: Emotional Math: we subtract certain emotions from the equation: “that emotion is not really who I am.” But others count it double: “That emotion is exactly who you are.” Strong emotions can seem as if they are part of the environment rather than part of us. It’s not that I was angry, we think, it’s that the situation was tense. But situations aren’t tense. People are tense.
Amplifier 2: Situation Versus Character. Emotional math is really a subset of a larger dynamic. When something goes wrong and I am part of it, I will tend to attribute my actions to the situation; you will tend to attribute my actions to my character.
Amplifier 3: Impact Versus Intent. We judge ourselves by our intention, while others judge us by our impacts. Given that even good intentions can result in negative impacts, this contributes to the gap in the story you tell about me versus the story I know is “true”. Therefore we need to separate intentions from impact when feedback is discussed.
We Collude to Keep Each Other in The Dark. When we’re on the giving side, we often withhold critical feedback because we don’t want to hurt others’ feelings or start a fight. We figure they must already know, or that it’s someone else’s job to tell them, or that if they really wanted to hear about it, they’d ask. The result of this withholding is that it’s easy for the receiver to take misplaced comfort in the absence of corroborating views: if what you’re saying were true, other people would have told me. That’s one more reason seeing ourselves clearly is a challenge.
Ask: “How do I get in my own way? What do you see me doing, or failing to do, that is getting in my way?” This question is more specific about the honesty you desire as well as your interest in the impact you have on others. It’s also a narrower and easier question for others to answer. They may start timidly, but if you respond with genuine curiosity and appreciation, they’ll be able to paint you a picture that is clear, detailed, and useful.
Record yourself. Watching yourself on video or hearing yourself on audio recording can be enormously illuminating, enabling us to hear our own tone and see our own behavior in ways that are normally invisible to us.
When you’re working to change a blind spot, acknowledging what other people already see, and being clear that you’re trying to change it, can go a long way. You can also ask for help in having people point out in the moment when you do that thing you’re trying to change.
Relationship Triggers: I can’t hear this feedback from you
We are often more triggered by the person giving us feedback than by the feedback itself. In fact, relationship triggers may be the most common derailers of feedback conversations.
Don’t Switchback: Disentangle What from Who
Relationship triggers produce hurt, suspicion, and sometimes anger. The way out is to disentangle the feedback from the relationship issues it triggers, to discuss both, clearly and separately.
When they blame you, and it feels unfair, blaming them back is not the answer. To them, that will seem unfair, and worse, they’ll assume you’re making excuses. Instead, work to understand it this way: “What’s the dynamic between us and what are we each contributing to the problem?”
Relationship triggers create switch-track conversations, where we have two topics on the table and talk past each other.
The switchback dynamic has four steps: we get feedback; we experience a relationship trigger; we change the topic to how we feel; and, step four, we talk past each other.
Interestingly, people we find difficult see us at our worst and therefore are especially well placed to be honest mirrors about areas where we have the most room to grow. If you want to fast track your growth, go to the people you have the hardest time with. Ask them what you’re doing that’s exacerbating the situation. They will surely tell you.
Credible strangers can also be helpful in providing feedback, since they have no ulterior motives.
Identify The Relationship System: Seeing Feedback in the System
One Step Back: In what ways does the feedback reflect differences in preferences, assumptions, styles, or implicit rules between us?
Two Steps Back: Do our roles make it more or less likely that we might bump into each other?
Three Steps Back: What other players influence our behavior and choices? Are physical setups, processes, or structures also contributing to the problem?
Circling Back to Me: What am I doing (or failing to do) that is contributing to the dynamic between us?
Looking at relationship systems have 3 benefits: it reduces judgment, enhances accountability, and uncovers root causes.
Identity Triggers: The feedback is threatening and I’m off balance
Understanding identity triggers is because our feelings influence our thoughts, and the story we tell ourselves about what the feedback means can become distorted.
The google bias magnifies the negatives and collapses the past and the present.
One thing becomes everything and everyone.
The forever bias makes the future look bleak
Learn How Wiring and Temperament Affect Your Story: individuals vary widely in our reactions to positive and negative feedback. Not everyone shuts down in the same way, in response to the same things, or for the same amount of time. Understanding the common wiring patterns as well as your own temperament gives you insight into why you react as you do, and helps explain why others don’t react the way you might expect. Wiring matters:
Baseline, swing and sustain/recovery vary by as much as 3,000 percent among individuals.
If we have a lower baseline, the volume will be turned down on the positives, and up on the negatives.
Dismantle Distortions: See Feedback at “Actual Size”: Whatever the feedback, some people distort and magnify it. Work to correct distorted thinking, see the feedback in actual size (not amplified), in order to and regain balance and learn from the feedback. Before we can decide what we think of the feedback we get, we need to remove the distortions:
Be prepared, be mindful - recognize your feedback footprint (pattern of response)
Separate the strands - of feeling / story / feedback
Contain the story - what is this about and what isn’t it about?
Change your vantage point - to another, to the future, to the comedy.
Accept that you can’t control how others see you - don’t buy their story about you wholesale. Others’ views of you are input, not imprint.
Cultivate a Growth Identity: Sort Toward Coaching: we are always learning and growing. How you are now is simply how you are now. It’s a moment in time, not a fixed state. Hard work matters; challenge and even failure are the best ways to learn and improve. Inside a growth identity, feedback is valuable information about where we stand now and what to work on next. It is welcome input rather and an upsetting verdict. Here are 3 practices to help cultivate a growth identity:
Sort for coaching. Hear coaching as coaching, and find the coaching in evaluation.
When evaluated, separately the judgement from assessment and consequence.
Give yourself a second score for how you handle the first score.
3 Kinds of Feedback
When we use the word “feedback”, we may be referring to any of three different kinds of information: appreciation, coaching, and evaluation. Each serves an important purpose, each satisfied different needs, and each comes with it’s own challenges.
Appreciation: to see, acknowledge, connect, motivate, thank
Coaching: To help the receiver expand knowledge, sharpen skill, improve capability. Or, to address the giver’s feelings or an imbalance in the relationship.
Evaluation: to rate or rank against a set of standards, to align expectations, to inform decision making.
We need evaluation to know where we stand, to set expectations, to feel reassured or secure. We need coaching to accelerate learning, to focus our time and energy where it really matters, and to keep our relationships healthy and functioning. And we need appreciation if all the sweat and tears we put into our jobs and relationships are going to feel worthwhile.
Appreciation Shortfalls: There are 3 qualities required for appreciation to count.
It has to be specific. This is tricky; most of us offer both appreciation and positive evaluation in grand strokes like “Good work!” or “Thanks for everything!”. In contrast to the vagueness of our appreciation, our negative feedback - or “areas of improvement” - often consists of a detailed list of items. We focus on the negative because we’re focused on an immediate problem. Overtime an appreciation deficit sets in.
Appreciation has to come in a form the receiver values and hears clearly.
Meaningful appreciation has to be authentic. If employees start to sense that everyone receives appreciation for the smallest accomplishments - “thanks for coming to work today” - appreciation becomes worthless.
A Complication: There is always some amount of evaluation in coaching. The coaching message “here’s how to improve” also implicitly conveys the evaluative message that “so far you aren’t doing it as well as you might.”
Separate evaluation from coaching and appreciation, by at least a few days, and probably longer. The loud blast of evaluation can drown out the quieter melodies of coaching and appreciation. The evaluation conversations need to take place first, because we can’t focus on how to improve until we know where we stand. While evaluation usually happens once or twice a year in companies, ideally we receive coaching and appreciation year-round, day by day, project by project.
Get Aligned on What Type of Feedback Discussion You’re Having: misunderstandings can happen when the giver and receiver are misaligned on what type of discussion they’re having. The fix? Discuss the purpose of the feedback explicitly. Are you trying to improve, to assess, or to say thanks and be supportive? Be explicit about what you think the conversation is about, and be explicit about what would be most helpful to you. Then discuss and, if you each need something different, negotiate. Both the giver and receiver should ask him/herself three questions.
What’s my purpose in giving/receiving this feedback? Is your primary goal coaching, evaluation, or appreciation?
Is it the right purpose from my point of view?
Is it the right purpose from the other person’s point of view?
3 Boundaries For Rejecting Feedback When Enough is Enough: Rejecting feedback can be as easy as saying no thanks or walking away, or simply saying nothing. They offer, you decline, and it’s over. But sometimes it’s more complicated than that. You say no, but the unwanted feedback keeps coming. It’s not just bothersome but destructive. This is when it helps to be explicit about boundaries. Here are 3 kinds of boundaries to consider:
I may not take your advice: the first is the softest: I’m willing to listen. I’ll consider your input. But I may not end up taking it. Note, if you’re unsure if the coaching in optional or mandatory, discuss it explicitly. And if you decide not to take the coaching, don’t assume the giver knows why. Explain your reasons carefully.
I don’t want feedback about that subject, not right now. With this boundary, you are not only establishing your right to decide whether to take the feedback, you’re establishing your right to be free of the topic altogether.
Stop, or I will leave the relationship. This boundary is the starkest. If you can't keep your judgements to yourself, if you can’t accept me the way I am now, then I will leave the relationship or change its terms.
How do you know if boundaries are needed?
Do they attack your character, not just your behavior?
Is the feedback unrelenting?
When you do change, is there always one more demand?
Does the feedback giver take the relationship hostage?
Are they issuing warnings, or making threats?
Is it always you who has to change?
Are your views and feelings a legitimate part of the relationship?
How to turn away feedback with grace and honesty:
Be transparent, actually tell them
Be firm - and appreciative
Redirect unhelpful coaching
Use “and”: the temptation is to link those two thoughts with the word “but.” However, “but” suggests a contradiction between two thoughts - the first part would be true, but for the second part. Using “and” to describe our feelings isn’t just about word choice. For example “I think what you’ve said makes a lot of sense. And I’ve decided that those aren’t the skills…”
When setting boundaries, be specific about your request:
The Request. What, exactly, are you asking of them? Are you putting a particular topic off limits, or a behavior?
The Time Frame. How long is the boundary likely to be in place? Let them know if the boundary is time limited, and if not, how they might check in with you about it without violating the boundary.
Their Assent. Don’t assume that they understand you or agree. Instead ask.
If you’re not changing, work to mitigate the impact on others:
Ask about the impact
Coach them to deal with the unchanged you
Problem solve together
Navigate the Conversation:
Open by Getting Aligned:
Is this feedback? If so, what kind?
Who decides? You can disagree and problem solve - even if one of you is the ultimate decision maker. But both of you need to be clear who that is.
Is this final or negotiable? If the feedback is an evaluation, determine its status: Is it final or provisional? If your performance rating is final, it’s important to know that upfront. If it’s provisional, then you may be able to influence the final outcome.
Listen for What’s Right (And Why They See it Differently): Listening may be the most challenging skill involved in receiving feedback, but it also has the biggest payoff.
Assess What’s Left Out: without your point of view and feelings, the giver is unaware of whether what they’re saying is helpful, on target, or in line with your expectations. There’s no problem solving, no adjusting, and no indication of whether you understand the feedback, how you might use it, or why trying it out is more challenging or risky than they assume. Shift from “I am right” to “Here’s what’s left out”. You can signal that the information doesn't fit with how you see yourself without saying the information is wrong. And you can vow to figure it out without saying that the information is right.
Be Your Own Process Referee: super-communicators have an exceptional ability to observe the discussion, diagnose where it is going wrong, and make explicit process interventions to correct it.
Problem Solve to Create Possibilities: you don’t need to have a final determination about the feedback. Whether or not the feedback is fair is as yet undetermined; what you agree on now is a process for moving forward that feels fair to both of you.
Close with Commitment: feedback conversations are rarely one-shot deals. They are usually a series of conversations over time, and as such, signposting where you stand, what you've accomplished, and what you’ll try next helps you travel the road together.
Get Going: Five Ways to Take Action
Name One Thing:
Ask “what’s one thing you see me doing ,or failing to do, that’s getting in my own way?”
Ask “what’s one thing I could change that would make a difference to you?”
Try Small Experiments
Experiment. Try the feedback out, especially when the stakes are low and the potential upside is great. Not because you know that it’s right or you know it will help. But because it's possible it will help. And because actions so often have unforeseen consequences, and trying new things stirs the pot. And because you (we) don’t try new things often enough.
In the aggregate, there are significant life rewards for being willing to test out feedback even when you’re not sure it’s right, or even pretty sure it’s wrong. At the very least, it shows the giver you are open to trying their advice, and there are surely relationship advantages to that.
Coach Your Coach
Coaching your coach - discussing the process of what helps you and why - is one of the most powerful ways to accelerate your learning
Talk about feedback and you. For example:
Subtle doesn’t work with me. Be really explicit and don’t worry about hurting my feelings. You won’t.
I tend to get defensive at first, and then I circle back later and figure out why the feedback is helpful. So if I seem defensive, don’t be put off. I’ll be thinking about what you’ve said, even if it doesn't’ sound like it.
Discuss Preferences, Roles, and Mutual Expectations.
It’s useful to clarify whether the coaching is confidential, how often you will get together, how you will measure progress, and what your priorities and goals might be. Get aligned on where you are going and how you will get there.
Workers who seek out negative feedback - coaching on what they can improve - tend to receive higher performance ratings. Perhaps showing and interest in learning doesn't highlight what you have to learn. It highlights how good you are at learning it.
Ask Your Coach Questions
Try asking them questions about themselves: What do they think about the business problem you’re facing together? Have they seen a similar problem in the past, and what mistakes have they seen people make in this situation? What gave them the insight to respond to the media the way they did this morning? By tapping into their wisdom, you can learn as much as you might by asking for explicit coaching.
Invite Them In
Letting someone far enough into your life to help you transforms the relationship. Not just because you learn, but because the interaction itself creates a connection and shifts both of your roles inside the relationship. You become someone humble, vulnerable, and confident enough to ask for help; they becomes someone who has the capacity to help and who is respected enough to be asked.