Culture

The Art of Receiving Feedback: What Have We Learned?

It is a universal truth that for every action there’s a reaction, and that if one force influences a thing, the thing also influences this force. So, why do we talk so little about receiving and implementing feedback? 

Sure—we talk a lot about giving feedback, how to be better at it, how to give it to our teammates, how it can be comprehensive, constructive, relatable, data-based, personal. The list goes on and on. 

But even a quick Google search shows that we have ~50% fewer results for the term “receiving feedback”. It seems that the management community has been so fixated on how to deliver feedback we’ve forgotten that, without proper reception, it won’t actually change anything. We will just be able to cross it off the list, and that’s not the point if we want to create a better working environment and grow together with the team. 

But why is it even a problem? Shouldn’t well-delivered feedback be also well-received? Apparently, no. 

People tend to react defensively when they receive feedback—and it works both ways. I’m pretty sure that you’ve met some people who just cannot take a compliment or those who, on the contrary, cannot acknowledge that their actions may disorganize the work of the team. It’s natural—we’re constantly struggling and balancing between our inherent need to be liked and accepted and our desire to grow and develop ourselves. 

Tips for receiving feedback at work

How can we improve our initial reaction to the feedback we’re receiving? According to Douglas Stone and Sheila Keen, authors of “Thanks for feedback”, it’s mostly about changing our attitude to a growth mindset and learning about triggers that we experience when we’re getting feedback. 

Firstly, we need to be honest with ourselves. Do we really want to hear the feedback? Do we want to change? Maybe we feel comfortable in our current position, we feel confident about our abilities, perhaps we’re (not without reason!) on top of the structure in our firm, so we’re supposed only to give feedback to others rather than receive it? 

With this kind of attitude, we’re missing a lot. First of all, there are some blind spots that we simply won’t be able to notice without external “mirrors”. Some patterns of behavior might feel normal for us, but be quite problematic for others. The same goes for our facial expressions or the tone of our voice—we are simply not aware that those things can cause problems. 

Secondly, sooner or later we’ll hit the brick wall of unchangeableness, or,even worse, we’ll convince ourselves that our project/department/firm is perfect as it is, and nothing should change the procedures that we’ve developed. That will inevitably lead to fall, especially in our dynamic, changeable IT world. 

All right, I think we established that change is needed and that we need to be ready to change ourselves. Perfect, what now? 

Well, that’s the hard part. And, if I may be honest, not as exciting as pitching the changing of the worldview. 



Receiving feedback: three types of triggers

The first thing that you need to understand is that, according to Stone and Keen, people have certain triggers that influence our reaction to feedback. There’s a truth trigger, a relationship trigger, and an identity trigger. As this text isn’t about reviewing or summarizing the book, let me give you just a few quick examples:

Truth triggers are related to the concept of truth, objective data, perception of reality, and differences that we can have. 

Truth trigger 

  • What I say: “That’s not how this situation looked like, you’re wrong about the chronological order!”
    What it is based on: That’s not how I remember this situation, so I refuse to listen to your feedback, even if it could bring me some insight on what your perspective is.
  • Someone says: “Your context is incomplete and biased, and you didn’t acknowledge the team’s dynamic.”
    Someone means: Not like mine, which is perfectly objective and should be considered a source of all truth, especially when it comes to MY team. 

Relationship triggers are related to our subjective feeling about someone who gives us feedback, the net of relations formed in our office, and all things related to our roles. 

Relationship triggers

  • Someone says: “You’re coming to see how my project is doing every 2 weeks.”
    Someone means: I do not recognize your authority to tell me any kind of feedback. It’s simply not valid, as you don’t know much about this project. I’m in charge here! 
  • Someone says: “You’re my boss, coming to see how my project is doing every 2 weeks.”
    Someone means: Sure, I think what you’re saying isn’t valid. But I also know that you’re my boss, you tend to be choleric, and I don’t wanna mess my chances for an annual bonus - that’s why I’ll implement this feedback even if I don’t agree with you. 

Identity triggers are the most personal ones, related to who we are and what has shaped us. 

Identity triggers

  • You hear: “Hey, you made some errors in your report, please fix them”
    You think: I made such obvious errors in such a simple thing as a report, I really have to suck at this
  • You hear: “Hey, thanks for defusing this situation with a client, good use of documentation there”
    You think: When are they gonna realize that I’m here only by pure luck, and I do not possess any kind of skill? I only document everything because I’m scared that without it, I’ll be completely lost. 

Learning how to identify triggers in ourselves is a first step to overcoming them and knowingly ignoring them in the pursuit of feedback. Looking for more info, more answers, more insight is something that can change our whole career, especially if we start early. If you’re interested, the book also gives great insight into how to do it, and what can you do to increase your chances of overcoming those triggers.

Main elements of feedback: appreciation, evaluation, and coaching

I’ve got to admit I’ve learned quite a few things about receiving feedback myself, and I’d like to share some quick wins and insights.

Whether you give or receive feedback, structurize it to reflect three areas - appreciation, evaluation, and coaching. 

  • Appreciation is acknowledging efforts, rewarding successes, and pointing to things that you should keep up and develop. If you don’t find it in feedback, be mindful of identity triggers—maybe there is something that doesn’t allow you to take an honest expression of appreciation. 
  • Evaluation is an “objective” part of feedback, and it should be based on data and observations. There is a tendency to react with truth triggers, trying to explain the data or adding more context to it, but generally, it should give you an overview of how you are being perceived. 
  • Coaching is a piece of practical advice, something that’ll actually help you solve the problem you’re facing. But watch out for the relationship triggers! Just because the advice is coming from your superior, it doesn’t mean that it’s good.

Structuring feedback will allow you to process and internalize it better. Focus on the part  you need in this particular moment to grow. Is it some praise, or some real help? Take what you need to grow, but remember that three of those forms exist—if you get feedback that is missing one of them, don’t hesitate to ask. Sorting feedback this way also allows you to make sure that there is still space to grow, but you’re already somewhere on the road. 

Peculiarly, those three elements should also be a part of every retrospective:

  • What went well? (appreciation)
  • What could have gone better? (evaluation)
  • What can we improve this time? (coaching)

A good retrospective is, therefore, a good feedback session for the whole team.


How to receive feedback like a pro?

When you’re receiving feedback, remember that it is based on things that are often blind spots for you. That’s why it is so important to listen to it. We tend to see and focus on things that are closest to us (our thoughts and intentions), while other people’s feedback doesn’t include them—it is based on our behavior and the impact that we have on them. Based on this, remember that when you’re receiving feedback:

  • what you get isn’t reality, it’s someone’s filtered opinion,
  • this opinion should help you to develop and grow in a certain way,
  • fight the triggers and use this feedback to grow,
  • try to keep this attitude and change your mindset into looking for feedback.

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