How do you feel when someone says to you, “Can I give you some feedback?” If you’re like most people, it’s not one of your favorite moments. And yet, you probably would also agree that feedback is essential for growth and learning—in the words of Bill Gates, “that’s how we improve.”
A couple of years ago, I read Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone’s book Thanks for the Feedback. It was my favorite book that year, and remains one of my top recommendations for leaders at all levels. The authors take on the topic of feedback in a way that is both profound and practical. Rather than do what most training on feedback does, which is to focus on the giver, Stone and Heen focus on the receiver. In their words:
“It doesn’t matter how much authority or power a feedback giver has; the receivers are in control of what they do and don’t let in… and whether they choose to change… The focus should not be on teaching feedback givers to give. The focus—at work and at home—should be on feedback receivers, helping us all to become more skillful learners.”
In exploring why feedback can be so challenging, Heen and Stone point to an essential dilemma that is built into the human operating system. On the one hand, there is a human need to learn and grow—on the other, a desire to be “respected, accepted and loved the way you are.” So, “even though feedback facilitates learning and growth, it conflicts with our need to feel respected. This is a key reason we resist feedback.”
One of my favorite frameworks for understanding how we operate is David Rock’s SCARF model. He identifies five social threats: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. When any of these are activated we enter an “away” or “threat” state that operates in our brain in the same ways as do physical, existential threats. The social threat of status—challenges to our perception of our relative importance to others—activates the same parts of our brain as a threat to our lives. It’s no wonder that receiving feedback is nerve wracking for most people!
This model helps us to better understand the challenge of receiving feedback. It is often perceived by our brains as a threat (pick any one of the five SCARF threats and feedback can trigger it)—even when we know it’s good for us.
So, here’s the dilemma. Feedback is tough and is often a trigger. It’s also critical for growth. What, as consultants, coaches, facilitators, and leaders, can we do?
First, we can model receiving feedback well. For a wealth of insights into how to both understand the feedback we receive and manage our reactions to that feedback, I strongly recommend Heen and Stone’s book. For now, I’ll just share one powerful strategy—actively seeking feedback. The likelihood of being triggered is lessened when we are seeking the feedback actively. We reduce uncertainty and minimize the status threats by eliciting feedback rather than waiting for it. By asking “what did I do that worked well?” and “what could I have done that would have been even better?” we can model simple, specific requests for feedback. We can ask these questions when evaluating how we did on projects, at meetings, or in any situation where reflection on individual or collective performance creates a learning opportunity.
In addition to modeling being recipients of feedback, another way to reduce the threat is to recognize that when we give feedback we are engaging in a conversation.
Like other difficult conversations we engage in, we tend to start with the premise that we are right and the other person is wrong. Our primary purpose in the conversation is to get our point across and get the other person to do something differently. What we miss is the reality that we could be at least partially wrong—and are likely missing something. If we can stop and listen and genuinely hear the other person, we can turn giving feedback into a genuine conversation. The other person is likely to shift—and we might find that we shift as well.
The ability to learn from feedback is crucial. As you model receiving feedback well, and give feedback with greater sensitivity and openness to the possibility of creating a genuine dialogue, you will be supporting a culture where it is safe to speak up and say what is important. That’s why Thanks for the Feedback is as much a book about creating vibrant organization as it is a book about feedback. It’s also why improving our capacities around feedback is worth every bit of effort we make.