In an ideal world, feedback should make us feel empowered, motivated, energised and enthusiastic. Unfortunately, it can sometimes have the opposite effect, leaving us demoralised and dejected. Much of this is of course to do with the way feedback is delivered – but it also to do with the way we receive the information and what we choose to do with it.
What neuroscience tells us is that our brains see criticism as a threat. If someone tells us something we don’t want to hear, we immediately leap into defensive mode and convince ourselves we’re right and the other person is wrong, even when that isn’t actually the case.
Negative feedback also stays with us for a long time and as a result has a much greater impact on us than the positive stuff – we remember what’s been said in detail and drive ourselves mad, going over it again and again in our heads.
So what’s the best way to make sure we don’t get derailed by negative feedback or become complacent when we’re on the receiving end of positive feedback?
• Actively seek feedback.
Asking for feedback often is a great way to ensure you are continually building your skills and getting better at what you do. It gives you the opportunity to make sure you are focusing your efforts in the right direction and to look at what’s going well and how you can do more of it. But seeking feedback regularly also means you are less likely to get caught on the back foot when something goes wrong or you receive some unexpected criticism. Make sure you have regular informal performance conversations with your manager, outside of the formal annual appraisal. That way you will have a much better sense of how you are doing, how you are perceived and which areas you might need to improve on.
• Be open to what you hear
When we receive uncomfortable feedback, we have a tendency to close down and reject the information. If what we’re being told conflicts with the way we perceive ourselves and our skills, our natural tendency is to fight against the message rather than accepting we may need to change our behaviour or take our performance up a notch. Try to take a step back and really listen to what is being said, rather than immediately thinking about how you are going to respond and defend yourself. Ask the person giving the feedback for clarification. This will give you time to make sure you have fully understood what’s being said and to reflect on whether there is some truth in it.
• Manage your emotions
If we feel what is being said is unfair or off-the-mark, our natural response is to get angry and upset. Try and keep calm, even if you do feel tearful or see the red mist coming down! If you feel that the feedback you have received is ‘personal’ (i.e. down to a personality clash) rather than professional, do a ‘sense check’ by asking other people for honest feedback on your performance. How do they perceive your skills or behaviour in the area that’s been highlighted? Of course you don’t want to get into a ‘he said/she said …’ situation, but if you ask for feedback and get a similar message, you will know that it’s an area you do perhaps need to pay attention to.
• Accept your mistakes
No-one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes – the important thing is that we learn from them and grow. A simple slip up or error of judgement is unlikely to wreck your entire career, so try and keep things in perspective. Make sure you know exactly what went wrong, so that you can put strategies and skills in place to make sure it doesn’t happen another time. Ask for mentoring, coaching or training so that you can build your skills and be well prepared for future challenges. As the saying goes, there is no failure, only feedback!
• Identify next steps
We have a choice about what we do with the feedback we are given, particularly if it’s negative, or not what we wanted to hear. We can either shrug our shoulders and carry on exactly the same as before, or we can make a conscious decision to learn from it and grow. Research suggests that the key to success is having a ‘growth mindset’, where we believe we are capable of continually learning and growing, as opposed to a fixed mindset, where we avoid challenge and tell us ourselves we’ll never get any better. Try to shift your focus to one of continual self-development, pushing yourself out of comfort zone, taking on new challenges and developing a hunger for learning. Look at HR systems which have a module for performance management to help with appraisals and keeping track of goals and feedback.
Action to take this week: Recommended reading Be Bulletproof: How to achieve success in tough times at work. James Brooke and Simon Brooke’s book giving advice on how to strengthen your resilience and be confident in the workplace.