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Thanks for the Feedback

The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Even When It Is Off Base, Unfair, Poorly Delivered, and, Frankly, You're Not In the Mood)

by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen

Hardcover, 348 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $27.95 |


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Thanks for the Feedback
The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Even When It Is Off Base, Unfair, Poorly Delivered, and, Frankly, You're Not In the Mood)
Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen

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Book Summary

Drawing on 10 years of working with businesses, nonprofits, governments and families, the authors of Difficult Conversations, combining the latest insights from neuroscience and psychology with practical advice, teach readers how to turn feedback into productive listening and learning.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Thanks For The Feedback

Before you tell me how to do it better, before you lay out your big plans for changing, fixing, and improving me, before you teach me how to pick myself up and dust myself off so that I can be shiny and successful—know this: I've heard it before.

I've been graded, rated, and ranked. Coached, screened, and scored. I've been picked first, picked last, and not picked at all. And that was just kindergarten.

We swim in an ocean of feedback.

Each year in the United States alone, every schoolchild will be handed back as many as 300 assignments, papers, and tests. Millions of kids will be assessed as they try out for a team or audition to be cast in a school play. Almost 2 million teenagers will receive SAT scores and face college verdicts thick and thin. At least 40 million people will be sizing up one another for love online, where 71 percent of them believe they can judge love at first sight. And now that we know each other . . . 250,000 weddings will be called off, and 877,000 spouses will file for divorce.1

More feedback awaits at work. Twelve million people will lose a job and countless others will worry that they may be next. More than 500,000 entrepreneurs will open their doors for the first time, and almost 600,000 will shut theirs for the last. Thousands of other businesses will struggle to get by as debates proliferate in the boardroom and the back hall aboutwhy they are struggling. Feedback flies.2

Did we mention performance reviews? Estimates suggest that between 50 and 90 percent of employees will receive performance reviews this year, upon which our raises, bonuses, promotions—and often our self-esteem—ride. Across the globe, 825 million work hours—a cumulative 94,000 years—are spent each year preparing for and engaging in annual reviews. Afterward we all certainly feel thousands of years older, but are we any wiser?3

Margie receives a "Meets Expectations," which sounds to her like "Really, You Still Work Here?"

Your second grader's art project, "Mommy Yells," was a hot topic at the school's Open House Night.

Your spouse has been complaining about your same character flaws for years. You think of this less as your spouse "giving you feedback," and more as your spouse "being annoying."

Rodrigo reads over his 360-degree feedback report.4 Repeatedly. He can't make head or tail of it, but one thing has changed: He now feels awkward with his colleagues, all 360 degrees of them.

Thanks for the Feedback is about the profound challenge of being on the receiving end of feedback—good or bad, right or wrong, flippant, caring, or callous. This book is not a paean to improvement or a pep talk on how to make friends with your mistakes. There is encouragement here, but our primary purpose is to take an honest look atwhy receiving feedback is hard, and to provide a framework and some tools that can help you metabolize challenging, even crazy-making information and use it to fuel insight and growth.

• • •

In 1999, along with our friend and colleague Bruce Patton, we published Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. Since then, we've continued to teach at Harvard Law School and to work with clients across continents, cultures, and industries. We've had the privilege of working with an amazing assortment of people: executives, entrepreneurs, oil rig operators, doctors, nurses, teachers, scientists, engineers, religious leaders, police officers, filmmakers, lawyers, journalists, and relief workers. Even dance instructors and astronauts.

Here's something we noticed early on: When we ask people to list their most difficult conversations, feedbackalways comes up. It doesn't matter who they are, where they are, what they do, or why they brought us in. They describe just how tough it is to give honest feedback, even when they know it's sorely needed. They tell us about performance problems that go unaddressed for years and explain that when they finally give the feedback, it rarely goes well. The coworker is upset and defensive, and ends up less motivated, not more. Given how hard it is to muster the courage and energy to give feedback in the first place, and the dispiriting results—well, who needs it?

Eventually, someone in the group will pipe up to observe that getting feedback is often no easier. The feedback is unfair or off base. It's poorly timed and even more poorly delivered. And it's not clear why the giver thinks they are qualified to offer an opinion; they may be the boss, but they don't really understand what we do or the constraints we're under. We are left feeling underappreciated, demotivated, and more than a little indignant. Who needs it?

Interesting. When we give feedback, we notice that the receiver isn't good at receiving it. When we receive feedback, we notice that the giver isn't good at giving it.

We wondered: What is it that makes feedback such a conundrum for both givers and receivers? We started listening closely to people as they described their dilemmas, struggles, and triumphs, and noticed those same struggles in ourselves. As we worked to develop ways to approach feedback differently, we soon realized that the key player is not the giver, but the receiver. And we came to see how this could transform not just how we handle performance reviews on the job, but how we learn, lead, and behave in our professional roles and in our personal lives.

Feedback includes any information you get about yourself. In the broadest sense, it's how we learn about ourselves from our experiences and from other people—how we learn from life. It's your annual performance review, the firm's climate survey, the local critic's review of your restaurant. But feedback also includes the way your son's eyes light up when he spots you in the audience and the way your friend surreptitiously slips off the sweater you knitted her the minute she thinks you're out of view. It's the steady renewal of services by a longtime client and the lecture you get from the cop on the side of the road. It's what your bum knee is trying to tell you about your diminishing spryness, and the confusing mix of affection and disdain you get from your fifteen-year-old.

So feedback is not just what gets ranked; it's what gets thanked, commented on, and invited back or dropped. Feedback can be formal or informal, direct or implicit; it can be blunt or baroque, totally obvious or so subtle that you're not surewhat it is.

Like that comment your spouse made a moment ago: "I don't like the way those pants look on you."What do you mean, you don't like the way these pants look on me? Is there something wrong with this particular pair of pants, or was that a passive-aggressive reference to the weight I've put on? Another dig about how I'm living in the past or can't dress myself, even as an adult? Are you trying to help me look nice for the party, or is this your way of easing into asking for a divorce?(What do you mean I'm overreacting?)

The term "feed-back" was coined in the 1860s during the Industrial Revolution to describe the way that outputs of energy, momentum, or signals are returned to their point of origin in a mechanical system.5 By 1909 Nobel laureate Karl Braun was using the phrase to describe the coupling and loops between components of an electronic circuit. A decade later the new compound word "feedback" was being used to describe the recirculating sound loop in an amplification system—that piercing squeal we all know from high school auditoriums and Jimi Hendrix recordings.

Sometime after World War II the term began to be used in industrial relations when talking about people and performance management. Feed corrective information back to the point of origin—that would be you, the employee—and voilà! Tighten up here, dial back there, and like some Dr. Seuss contraption, you're all tuned up for optimum, star-bellied performance.

In today's workplace, feedback plays a crucial role in developing talent, improving morale, aligning teams, solving problems, and boosting the bottom line. And yet. Fifty-one percent of respondents in one recent study said their performance review was unfair or inaccurate, and one in four employees dreads their performance review more than anything else in their working lives.6

The news is no more encouraging on the manager's side: Only 28 percent of HR professionals believe their managers focus on more than simply completing forms. Sixty-three percent of executives surveyed say that their biggest challenge to effective performance management is that their managers lack the courage and ability to have difficult feedback discussions.7

Something isn't working. So organizations are spending billions of dollars each year to train supervisors, managers, and leaders on how to give feedback more effectively. When feedback meets resistance or is rejected outright, feedback givers are encouraged to be persistent. They are taught how to push harder.

We think we have it backwards.

Training managers how to give feedback—how to push more effectively—can be helpful. But if the receiver isn't willing or able to absorb the feedback, then there's only so far persistence or even skillful delivery can go. 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, how they make sense of what they're hearing, and whether they choose to change.

Pushing harder rarely opens the door to genuine learning. 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.

The real leverage is creating pull.

Creating pull is about mastering the skills required to drive our own learning; it's about how to recognize and manage our resistance, how to engage in feedback conversations with confidence and curiosity, and even when the feedback seems wrong, how to find insight that might help us grow. It's also about how to stand up for who we are and how we see the world, and ask for what we need. It's about how to learn from feedback—yes, even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you're not in the mood.

We like the word "pull" because it highlights a truth often ignored: that the key variable in your growth is not your teacher or your supervisor. It'syou. It's well and good to hope for that special mentor or coach (and cherish the ones you come across). But don't put off learning until they arrive. Those exceptional teachers and mentors are rare. Mostly, our lives are populated by everyone else—people who are doing their best but may not know better, who are too busy to give us the time we need, who are difficult themselves, or who are just plain lousy at giving feedback or coaching. The majority of our learning is going to have to come from folks like these, so if we're serious about growth and improvement, we have no choice but to get good at learning from just about anyone.

It seems like that shouldn't be so hard. After all, humans are naturally wired for learning. The drive to learn is evident from infancy and rampant by toddlerhood. Even as adults we memorize baseball stats, travel in retirement, and throw ourselves into yoga because discovery and progress are deeply gratifying. Indeed, research on happiness identifies ongoing learning and growth as a core ingredient of satisfaction in life.

We may be wired to learn, but it turns out that learning about ourselves is a whole different ball game. Learning about ourselves can be painful—sometimes brutally so—and the feedback is often delivered with a forehead-slapping lack of awareness for what makes people tick. It can feel less like a "gift of learning" and more like a colonoscopy.

Tom's boss gives him a dressing-down about his "organizational skills." On his drive home, Tom silently catalogues his boss's inadequacies. He pulls over and jots down a list to keep them organized.

Monisha, the head of HR, hoped the grim results from the firm's climate survey would spark candid conversation among senior leadership about the need for change. Instead, she got a terse e-mail from the CFO enumerating the survey's methodological flaws, dismissing the results, and questioning Monisha's motives.

Kendra's sister-in-law lets slip that the family thinks she is hysterically overprotective of her children. Perhaps not precisely those words, but that's the tape running in Kendra's mind as she sets the table for the extended family Sunday dinner.

It's no wonder that when we see tough feedback coming, we are tempted to turn and run.

But we know we can't just tra-la-la down the road of life ignoring what others have to say, safely sealed in our emotional Ziploc. We've heard it since we were young. Feedback is good for you—like exercise and broccoli.It makes you stronger and helps you grow. Doesn't it?

It does. And our life experiences confirm it. We've all had a coach or family member who nurtured our talent and believed in us when no one else did. We've had a friend who laid bare a hard truth that helped us over an impossible hurdle. We've seen our confidence and capabilities grow, our relationships righted, and our rough edges softened. In fact, looking back, we have to admit that even that horrendous ex-spouse or overbearing supervisor taught us as much about ourselves as those who were on our side. It wasn't easy, but we know ourselves better now, and like ourselves more.

So here we are. Torn. Is it possible that feedback is like a gift and like a colonoscopy? Should we hang in there and take it, or turn and run? Is the learning really worth the pain?

We are conflicted.

Here's one reason why. In addition to our desire to learn and improve, we long for something else that is fundamental: to be loved, accepted, and respected just as we are. And the very fact of feedback suggests that how we are is not quite okay. So we bristle: Why can't you accept me for who I am and how I am? Why are there always more adjustments, more upgrades? Why is itso hard for you to understand me? Hey boss, hey team. Hey wife, hey Dad. Here I am. This is me.

Receiving feedback sits at the intersection of these two needs—our drive to learn and our longing for acceptance. These needs run deep, and the tension between them is not going away. But there's a lot each of us can do to manage the tension—to reduce anxiety in the face of feedback and to learn in spite of the fear. We believe that the ability to receive feedback well is not an inborn trait but askill that can be cultivated. It may be fraught, but it can be taught. Whether you currently think of yourself as someone who receives feedback well or poorly, you can get better. This book shows you how.

Receiving feedback well doesn't mean you always have to take the feedback. Receiving it well means engaging in the conversation skillfully and making thoughtful choices about whether and how to use the information and what you're learning. It's about managing your emotional triggers so that you can take in what the other person is telling you, and being open to seeing yourself in new ways. And sometimes, as we discuss in chapter 10, it's about setting boundaries and saying no.

The bold-faced benefits of receiving feedback well are clear: Our relationships are richer, our self-esteem more secure, and, of course, we learn—we get better at things and feel good about that. And perhaps most important to some of us, when we get good at receiving feedback even our toughest feedback interactions come to feel a little less threatening.

In the workplace, treating feedback not just as something to be endured, but something to be actively sought, can have a profound impact. Feedback-seeking behavior—as it's called in the research literature—has been linked to higher job satisfaction, greater creativity on the job, faster adaptation in a new organization or role, and lower turnover. And seeking outnegative feedback is associated with higher performance ratings.8

Perhaps this isn't surprising. People who are willing to look at themselves are just easier to work with and to live with. Being with people who are grounded and open is energizing. When you're open to feedback your working relationships have more trust and more humor, you collaborate more productively and solve problems more easily.

In personal relationships, our ability to deal with complaints, requests, and coaching from our friends and loved ones is crucial. Even in the best relationships we get frustrated with each other; we hurt each other accidentally and—on occasion—on purpose. Our ability to sort out how we're feeling, why we're upset, where we are bumping into one another, drives the long-term health and happiness of those relationships. Marriage researcher John Gottman has found that a person's willingness and ability to accept influence and input from their spouse is a key predictor of a healthy, stable marriage.9

In contrast, working or living with someone who shuts out feedback or responds with defensiveness and arguments is exhausting. We walk on eggshells and live in fear of pointless conflicts. Frank discussion fades and feedback goes unspoken, depriving the "receiver" of the chance to understand what's gone wrong or to fix it. The transaction costs involved in the simplest problem solving become prohibitive, and important thoughts and feelings have no outlet. Problems fester and the relationship stagnates. Insulation leads to isolation.

That's not just depressing, it's destructive, particularly today. Columnist Thomas Friedman observes, "We're entering a world that increasingly rewards individual aspiration and persistence and can measure precisely who is contributing and who is not. If you are self-motivated, wow, this world is tailored for you. The boundaries are all gone. But if you're not self-motivated, this world will be a challenge because the walls, ceilings and floors that protected people are also disappearing."10

The rewards are great, and the stakes have never been higher.

This suggests that it's not just about us; it's also about our kids. Whether or not we realize it, how we talk about an unfair performance evaluation in front of our children teaches them how to react to a bad call that costs them the ball game. Our kids respond to tough challenges the way they see us respond to tough challenges. Will a bully's name-calling eat away at their self-image? They will look to how we respond to our own setbacks; that teaches them more about resilience than all our pep talks and lectures combined.

The transformative impact of modeling is crucial at work as well. If you seek out coaching, your direct reports will seek out coaching. If you take responsibility for your mistakes, your peers will be encouraged to fess up as well; if you try out a suggestion from a coworker, they will be more open to trying out your suggestions. And this modeling effect becomes more important as you move up in an organization. Nothing affects the learning culture of an organization more than the skill with which its executive team receives feedback. And of course, as you move up, candid coaching becomes increasingly scarce, so you have to work harder to get it. But doing so sets the tone and creates an organizational culture of learning, problem solving, and adaptive high performance.

There is an old joke about a happy young optimist whose parents are trying to teach him to see the world more realistically. To that end, they decide to give him a large sack of horse dung for his birthday.

"What did you get?" asks his grandmother, wrinkling her nose at the smell.

"I don't know," cries the boy with delight as he excitedly digs through the dung. "But I think there's a pony in here somewhere!"

Receiving feedback can be like that. It's not always pleasant. But there just might be a pony in there somewhere.

Let's start with some good news. Not all feedback is difficult. Your son's teacher, astonishingly, praises his social skills. Your customer offers a clever suggestion about how to handle his order that expedites the process. You want bangs, but your hairdresser has a better idea, which is, actually, a better idea. We get this sort of feedback all the time. It helps or it doesn't, and either way we're not much bothered by it.

Most of us do just fine with positive feedback, although even praise can sometimes leave us uneasy. Perhaps we're not sure it's genuine or we fear we haven't earned it. But closing the deal, or learning that someone you admire admires you, or getting that perfect bit of coaching that kicks your skill level up a notch can be electrifying. We did it, it worked, someone likes us.

Then there's the tougher stuff—the feedback that leaves us confused or enraged, flustered or flattened. You're attacking my child, my career, my character? You're going to leave me off the team? Is that really what you think of me?

This kind of feedback triggers us: Our heart pounds, our stomach clenches, our thoughts race and scatter. We usually think of that surge of emotion as being "in the way"—a distraction to be brushed aside, an obstacle to overcome. After all, when we're in the grip of a triggered reaction we feel lousy, the world looks darker, and our usual communication skills slip just out of reach. We can't think, we can't learn, and so we defend, attack, or withdraw in defeat.

But pushing our triggered reactions aside or pretending they don't exist is not the answer. Trying to ignore a triggered reaction without first identifying its cause is like dealing with a fire by disconnecting the smoke alarm.

So triggers are obstacles, but they aren't only obstacles. Triggers are also information—a kind of map—that can help us locate the source of the trouble. Understanding our triggers and sorting out what set them off are the keys to managing our reactions and engaging in feedback conversations with skill.

Let's take a closer look at that map.

Because feedback givers are abundant and our shortcomings seemingly boundless, we imagine that feedback can trigger us in a googolplex of ways. But here's more good news:

There are only three.

We call them "Truth Triggers," "Relationship Triggers," and "Identity Triggers." Each is set off for different reasons, and each provokes a different set of reactions and responses from us.

Truth Triggers are set off by the substance of the feedback itself—it's somehow off, unhelpful, or simply untrue. In response, we feel indignant, wronged, and exasperated. Miriam experiences a truth trigger when her husband tells her she was "unfriendly and aloof" at his nephew's bar mitzvah. "Unfriendly? Was I supposed to get up on the table and tap dance?" This feedback is ridiculous. It is just plain wrong.

Relationship Triggers are tripped by the particular person who is giving us this gift of feedback. All feedback is colored by the relationship between giver and receiver, and we can have reactions based on what we believeabout the giver (they've got no credibility on this topic!) or how we feeltreated by the giver (after all I've done for you, I get this kind of petty criticism?). Our focus shifts from the feedback itself to the audacity of the person delivering it (are they malicious or just stupid?).

By contrast, Identity Triggers focus neither on the feedback nor on the person offering it. Identity triggers are all aboutus. Whether the feedback is right or wrong, wise or witless, something about it has caused our identity—our sense of who we are—to come undone. We feel overwhelmed, threatened, ashamed, or off balance. We're suddenly unsure what to think about ourselves, and question what we stand for. When we're in this state, the past can look damning and the future bleak. That's the identity trigger talking, and once it gets tripped, a nuanced discussion of our strengths and weaknesses is not in the cards. We're just trying to survive.

Is there anything wrong with any of the reactions above? If the feedback is genuinely off target or the person giving it has proven untrustworthy, or we feel threatened and off balance, aren't these responses pretty reasonable?

They are.

Our triggered reactions are not obstacles because they are unreasonable. Our triggers are obstacles because they keep us from engaging skillfully in the conversation. Receiving feedback well is a process of sorting and filtering—of learning how the other person sees things; of trying on ideas that at first seem a poor fit; of experimenting. And of shelving or discarding the parts of the feedback that in the end seem off or not what you need right now.

And it's not just the receiver who learns. During an effective conversation, the feedbackgiver may come to see why their advice is unhelpful or their assessment unfair, and both parties may understand their relationship in a clarifying light. They each see how they are reacting to the other, showing a way forward that's more productive than what either imagined before.

But it's nearly impossible to do any of this from inside our triggers. And so we make mistakes that cause us to put potentially valuable feedback into the discard pile, or just as damaging, we take to heart feedback that is better left at the curb.

From Thanks For The Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. Copyright 2014 by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Group USA.