Being able to accept feedback is an important skill for leaders, but it’s not easy to do.
I see a lot of advice telling people they need to ask for feedback.
The thing is, accepting feedback can be daunting. When we ask for feedback, we are potentially opening ourselves up to attack. We’re putting ourselves in a vulnerable situation.
We might hear something unpleasant that may take us by surprise.
Of course, not all feedback is bad. However, this is where many of our thoughts immediately go when we think of feedback.
Why Do We Need to Accept Feedback?
Let’s start with the basics.
Feedback is one way in which we can receive information about how to improve, and to know whether what we’re doing is working. Without feedback, we are flying blind.
We can lead our teams and deliver our work, but if we never accept feedback we’ll never be sure about how we’re performing.
Receiving feedback can be a helpful means of improving our self-awareness, because it comes from an external source.
If we are only relying on what we think about ourselves, we may be overly critical or exceedingly optimistic about our performance.
Feedback can reduce our blind spots, which are those areas where we may be unaware of our strengths or our limitations.
Being able to accept feedback can also improve our confidence, because we have information that may confirm that we’re doing well.
Learn More: Blind Spots: How to Shrink Yours to Lead Better.
You Have a Choice: To Reject or Accept Feedback
I see quite a lot of advice talking about how we should be asking for feedback to keep improving.
While I agree with this, I do think it’s worth mentioning that we always have a choice about what to do with the feedback we receive.
We can choose to accept it, or reject it.
Accepting feedback means that you take it on board as useful information. Then you use that information to adjust, to improve, to make a change in some way.
Rejecting feedback doesn’t mean you need to get angry or upset about it. It simply means that you make the decision not to take the feedback on board.
We hear phrases such as “feedback is a gift”, which implies that we should always accept it.
But some feedback is not useful. Some is hurtful, some is used as a weapon, or simply doesn’t contain useful information.
Consider These Factors When Deciding Whether to Reject or Accept Feedback
Before we delve into how to accept feedback positively, I’d like to first cover several factors which may help you to decide whether you will accept it or reject it.
Remember: you have a choice.
#1: Consider the Context Before You Accept Feedback
Context is key when receiving feedback. Some aspects to consider include:
- Credibility. Does the feedback come from a credible source? Do they have expertise or knowledge that makes them a reasonable source of feedback?
- Access. Does the person giving the feedback have consistent access to see how you operate, or is it based on their perspective of a once-off event?
- Motive. What do you think the motivation behind the feedback may be? Is there a reason why somebody may try to throw you off balance with bad feedback? Or does the person have your best interests at heart?
It’s always worth considering the context in your decision to accept or reject feedback.
#2: Is the Feedback Useful?
We should accept feedback when we can do something with it.
“Great job!” is not useful, because while it feels nice, there is nothing specific that we can take away from it. For example, what did I do that was great?
“You didn’t run that meeting very well” is also not useful.
What specifically should you have done differently in the meeting?
You might need to make enquiries to dig deeper for information that you can actually act upon.
Learn More: 10 Simple & Effective Tips For Giving Feedback.
#3: Does the Feedback Align With Your Direction?
Even if the feedback comes from a credible source and has some specific useful information, it still doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to accept it.
There are millions of areas in which we can all improve in life.
However, a much smaller subset of those areas are the ones that will help us get to where we want to go.
It’s worth asking the question:
“Will improving in this area help me to achieve my goals?”
“Will failing to improve in this area hold me back?”
Without being discerning about the feedback we accept, we run the risk of focusing on every improvement.
While improving in every area might be nice, it’s probably not the best use of our time!
Timing may also be a factor here.
When I was at university, I was terrible at public speaking, and I once received very harsh feedback from a lecturer when I gave a presentation.
At that time, my response was “Who cares? I just won’t do any public speaking”.
As I progressed further in my career, I realised that this area was going to hold me back if I didn’t get comfortable with it. That’s when I was actually ready to accept that feedback, and make some improvements.
#4: Does the Feedback Hurt?
Feedback that is hurtful is not a sign, by itself, of whether you should accept or reject it.
However, I find that hurtful feedback can often be dismissed, because:
- We’d rather not have to deal with it
- It hits us where we are vulnerable, perhaps by exposing a blind spot or hitting us where we thought we were strong; and
- We can dismiss the feedback provider as being malicious.
So take some time to consider whether you’re leaning towards rejecting feedback just because it hurts.
Hurtful feedback strikes a nerve, so it might be worth listening to, and there could be some golden nuggets inside.
Simple Steps to Accept Feedback Positively
1. Pay Attention
When someone provides you with feedback, it’s worth paying attention.
After all, giving feedback can be daunting and awkward, so the fact that someone has taken the time is noteworthy.
Try your best to listen and show all the signs of paying attention. Nodding, making appropriate eye contact and encouraging them to continue speaking are all good active listening techniques.
You should also try to reflect back what you’re hearing to confirm your understanding. This makes it look like you’re paying attention, but also helps you to absorb what is being said.
2. Say Thanks
First off, you can start with a simple thank you.
“Thank you for bringing that to my attention”
“Thanks for letting me know”
“Thank you for taking the time”
This doesn’t mean you necessarily agree with the feedback, or accept it. It simply means you have heard it and appreciate the effort that was put into it.
And if it’s good feedback, you don’t need to play it down or say “it was nothing”. You can simply say thanks.
3. Ask Clarifying Questions
To get the most use out of your feedback, you need to make sure you understand it.
Sometimes people will provide feedback without sufficient detail or context, such as why the feedback is important (or why it’s an issue).
Asking questions forces them to take accountability for their feedback, instead of dumping it on you without thinking.
When you believe you understand the feedback, why it matters, and what they would have liked to see instead, you can then make an informed decision about whether to accept or reject the feedback.
4. Take Time to Reflect
When someone is delivering feedback, I don’t believe that you should have just one chance to digest it and respond to it.
Hearing feedback for the first time can be a shock. You might hear something you weren’t expecting!
I think it’s fine to be able to retreat, reflect and then take action when you’ve had some time to process it.
This might mean you schedule a follow-up conversation with the person who gave you the feedback, if there is anything you need to communicate or clarify, such as what you’re planning to do about the feedback.
Here are some simple questions to help you reflect on feedback:
- How did the feedback make you feel?
- What was it specifically about the feedback that made you feel that way?
- Based on the feedback, what are some practical actions that you could take to improve, or do better in-the-moment next time?
Learn More: Why Leaders Should Have a Reflective Practice.
5. Make the Decision to Reject or Accept It
Now, make a conscious decision about whether to accept the feedback.
If you decide to accept it, think about what you might do to improve for next time. If it’s positive feedback, consider what you could do to keep it happening!
If you decide to reject, hopefully this conscious choice helps you to put the feedback to rest.
What is not desirable is for you to ruminate on the feedback again and again.
Instead, choose to accept or reject and do your best to move on.
Your Takeaway May Not Be Exactly What the Feedback Said
I deliver quite a lot of training, and last year I received some harsh feedback about one particular session from a small number of people in one group.
This took me by surprise, because I felt the dynamic in the room was relatively positive, even though there were a few strong characters in the room.
After reflecting on the feedback for a time, I took a few practical things away:
- I could have shuffled the participants into different groups more often, shifting the dynamic
- Ground rules could have been used at the start of the training to make it easier to control the room; and
- Certain topics could have been moved “off-line” to be discussed outside of the workshop environment.
None of these points were raised in the feedback.
In fact, some of the feedback indicated that certain people had quite a strong emotional reaction to certain other people in the room, and I received the blame for it.
While I’m happy to take some of the responsibility (I was running the session after all), I’m not willing to blame myself for how the participants were feeling – that’s for them to process. Especially as they raised this feedback after the session was over, not during it.
So from that feedback, I did take away some good, practical ideas to implement. But these were not directly from the feedback.
These takeaways came from my subsequent reflection and discussing it with others.
You don’t need to take on board exactly what was said in any feedback. But you may extract some powerful lessons from it in other ways.
Feedback Is a Gift, But Be Intentional About How You Accept It
All feedback is not created equal.
There is useful, constructive feedback.
There is hurtful, useless, vague feedback.
Take time to be intentional about how you receive feedback, and about what you do with it.
How do you accept feedback? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!