How to take constructive feedback like a boss

Imagine: you’ve been called into your manager’s office to hear the results of your annual performance, or leadership review. If upon hearing the feedback your initial reaction is to get angry, stop for a minute to think about what you’re being told.

Fear of criticism is a common but manageable reaction. Learning to overcome your inhibitions will enable you to welcome constructive feedback as an opportunity for growth. If you are a manager, it’s vital that you’re able to take constructive feedback on board, both from leadership and from your direct reports.

If you model the behaviour and show you are open to feedback you’re encouraging your team to do the same.

These steps will help you move from a fear of feedback, to proactively seeking it on your own.

Why constructive feedback is good for you

Most people have goals in mind when it comes to their professional development. For example: maybe you want to take on more responsibility or are aiming for a higher position, but aren’t sure what steps you should take to get there.

Feedback can be be a great way to help you reach these goals. Like pieces of a puzzle, the more feedback you receive (both positive and constructive) the clearer the picture will get. If you become defensive or shut down when people try to approach you, you are more likely to miss out on opportunities to improve and excel.

If you ask for constructive feedback or are curious about areas in which you can improve, this shows others that you’re willing to learn and grow. Being receptive to your colleagues’ feedback gives you the opportunity to see your actions from other perspectives.

For example: imagine your colleague tells you that in the last team meeting you seemed uninterested in other people’s opinions. If you ask for more details you may discover that being on your laptop while others were speaking made your co-workers think you weren’t paying attention, even if in reality you were taking notes.

How to manage the emotions

Now you know why constructive feedback is good for you, start taking the initiative to ask for it more often. Even if you know constructive feedback is good for you, if you still can’t shake the emotional reaction you get when receiving it, it can help to better understand why you’re feeling this way.

Your brain has a natural tendency to go into fight or flight mode when it senses you’re being threatened. The increased amounts of hormones being released into your bloodstream are the cause of your heightened emotion. Receiving negative feedback can also threaten our natural desire to belong. Management Professor Neal Ashkanasy contends that although today we are not as dependent on others for survival, criticism may still raise the alarm that our place in the group is being threatened. A continuing fear of being cast out can prevent us both from receiving feedback well and giving it to others.

Though it’s natural to feel this way, it’s also not impossible to overcome. Once you stop seeing constructive feedback as negative you can prevent your brain from eliciting these kinds of reactions.

Steps to help you manage your emotions related to feedback:

1. Set professional goals

Before you receive feedback, you should be thinking about what professional goals you would like to set for yourself. If you’re willing to develop professionally, you are not opening yourself to any kind of feedback.

Creating goals will bring several benefits: on the one hand, this can create focus for you put your efforts towards. On the other hand, goals can enable stronger alignment between company objectives, team and personal goals. Lastly, having goals gives you an opportunity to regularly check progress and have conversations around your development.

2. Be curious and ask questions

Try to get a good understanding of what exactly your manager or colleague is telling you, so you can better address the issue. Remember that different perceptions could play a role here and as such you want to get down to the facts rather than opinions.

In the previous example, your colleague assumed you were uninterested in other peoples contributions because you were on your laptop. Understand which behaviour you displayed that caused them to feel this way, as it provides an actionable piece of information. Next time you can ensure you close your laptop, or announce that you will be taking notes.

If you struggle when you initially receive the feedback, ask the reviewer if you can have some time to process the information and schedule another meeting. During the second meeting, come prepared with questions to help you better understand the feedback, or which points you could improve on.

3. Analyze patterns and tendencies

The more you receive feedback, the better you will be able to analyze it and potentially detect patterns. If you’re participating in a 360 review, it’s the perfect opportunity to compare the different responses you get. If you’re getting feedback in a 1:1, try to review your feedback from previous 1:1's as well to compare insights. When you start to see patterns or recognize some of the behaviors they’re describing, write them down.

Most people will give you constructive feedback out of a genuine desire to help improve your performance. However this does not necessarily mean you should always act on it. If you’re not sure, ask other people for a second opinion.

4. Develop a strategy

The list of patterns you’ve identified can now become your “battle plan”. Think about how these behaviors could become barriers to the goals you set for yourself. Identify steps you could take to address these points.

For example, imagine you’ve applied for a management position and want to take the lead on an upcoming big project. But if your colleagues don’t feel you’re giving them your full attention during team meetings, you’re sending the wrong message about your leadership skills. Think about ways you can address this, that will help highlight your leadership skills.

5. Share your plan and ask for support

Once you’ve identified key points to work on and looked for patterns in the feedback you received, why not share your strategy with others? In particular if you share it with the people who gave you feedback in the first place, this shows you’re taking action on their feedback. They might have further ideas you may not have considered.

Finally, ask your manager or colleagues for support in making these changes. Ask them for guidance and encouragement as you work through your action plan, or ask them to let you know if they see you slip up. Similarly, you can regularly ask for feedback, for example after a meeting or a project - on the behaviours you’re aiming to improve.

Summary

Receiving constructive feedback can be difficult at first, particularly when you’re perceiving it as a criticism of your work. Overcoming this initial fear could be the step that takes you from being a good employee to a top performer.

Being open to feedback will demonstrate that you’re an effective communicator, team player and hard worker who is always eager to improve. Remember:

Now that you understand how to receive feedback, why not learn how to give effective feedback.

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