The problem with accepting constructive feedback

 Feb 17, 2016

Why is it that we are rarely enthusiastic about constructive feedback? Even when it’s helpful! There are three areas that I’d like to consider around this topic:

  • The first is the how and why we respond to criticism the way we do;
  • Secondly, the point of feedback; and
  • Finally, some steps to make it a more relevant exercise.

1. In the words of the great Winston Churchill “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

Let’s just pause for a moment on the comment that criticism isn’t “agreeable”. I don’t believe that I’ve ever encountered anyone who enjoyed it and that’s probably because we don’t want to hear it. We often take it very personally, and as a slight on our identity. Perhaps we feel under “attack” and somehow “less than”. And it doesn’t really seem to matter how it’s delivered either because the moment we hear the negative part, we feel a physical reaction. This can be anything from tensing muscles, a racing heart, a feeling of nausea and it’s all due to the fight- or-flight reaction of our nervous system.

And why? Because it’s tied up with the fear response.

According to Peter Gray, a research psychologist at Boston College, this fear stems from a loss of connection or exclusion from our social group – harking back to the days of the hunter-gatherer where not being connected, or ostracised from the group, most likely meant death. Neal Ashkenasy, professor of management at the University of Queensland, supports this view when he says that “Strong criticism threatens your membership in that group, and that's a powerful force.” Additionally, there’s evidence to suggest that most people respond more to bad information, than to good information. Experiments suggested that separate circuits in our brains handle negative information and that they are more sensitive than the circuits that handle positive phenomena. We perceive it as a risk to ourselves, which makes us apprehensive.

2. So what is the point of feedback then?

Referring back to Churchill’s quote, “it calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

Critical feedback should serve to highlight a discrepancy between a desired state and a current state, and establish a course of action to bring about the desired change. However, as we have seen, even when the person delivering the feedback has focused on the facts, we still respond defensively. The point of Feedback is bringing you to awareness about your blind spots. Negative feedback gives us a different perspective to consider, and that’s a way for us to learn.

Hearing the feedback message highlights discrepancies in behaviour. We learn through correcting mistakes we have made, doing things that we may have failed to deliver, or not doing things which proved irrelevant. It’s about corrective action and about a future orientation – the next time. If we don’t get feedback we have one less opportunity to learn and to mature.

Of course there is a big difference in being given unsolicited feedback and feedback that you have asked for. I believe we are more likely to tolerate the feedback we have asked for, because we can prepare ourselves. We guide the conversation to areas we have determined may need changes. E.g. “I’ve done the task you asked and I would welcome your feedback on improvements that I could make, since this was my first experience of doing the monthly reports”. In this example, the request is clearly about the work and not themselves, and is couched using positive words such as “improvement” and “welcome”.

3. Tips for making the most of criticism or feedback that comes your way:

  • Don't expect heroics from yourself or anyone else. You’re probably still going to feel a reaction. Pause, take a deep breath and understand that you may hear some home truths. Keep listening to see what you might get out of the feedback. While you don’t have much of a choice regarding the feedback coming your way, you do have the ability to choose how you will respond to the feedback. Choose to remain calm so that you can deal better with the feedback.
  • Try to view the feedback as providing data or information. An ability to de-personalise the message is helpful. So even if the feedback is delivered in anger or annoyance, try to remain focused on the message and the actual point the person is trying to make about your work and behaviour.
  • Paraphrase what they have told you, to make sure you have hear their message correctly. Then, think of questions you could ask to aid your understanding. Ask questions, and ask for suggestions they might have for improvement. “What would you have preferred me to do?” or “What will work better next time?”
  • Focus on “next steps” and what actions need to be taken. Make a commitment to the changes and follow through.
  • And lastly, reflect on what has been said. Does it seem valid or useful? Do you think the person spoke in haste, or in the heat of the moment without all the facts at hand? If you disagree, the respectfully explain why you disagree. If you believe the feedback is of no use to you, or not valid, let it go, and move on.

“Critics only make you stronger. You have to look at what they are saying as feedback. Sometimes feedback helps, and at other times, it's just noise that can be a distracting” – Robert Kiyosaki.

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About the Author:

Fee Hosking  

With over 24 years experience as a trainer, Fee is one of our most senior Professional Development trainers at New Horizons Sydney. With a professional background as a management consultant in the South African manufacturing industry, Fee brings credibility, experience and authenticity to all of the subjects that she trains. She has the ability to engage professionals from the junior to the senior level. Bringing great energy to the classroom, Fee ensures that the learning experience for all who attend is an enjoyable one, which in turn makes it a truly impactful one.

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