This article was written by Roger Delves, Dean of Qualifications and Head of the People and Leadership faculty at Ashridge Executive Education and Sona Sherratt, an faculty member at Ashridge Executive Education, and was originally published on May 29, 2015 on www.ashridge.org.uk/insights
While it can be very easy to give feedback, the vast majority of us are less comfortable with receiving it, especially when it comes in the form of criticism about our work. Given that most of us are likely to have a conversation about where we are going wrong at least once in our working lives, it can be productive to try and view these conversations as learning opportunities rather than hurdles.
So how can we get better at turning uncomfortable feedback to our advantage?
Take note of delivery and timing
In some companies feedback is a prevalent part of the culture while in others, it is given once a year (if that) during performance reviews. The timing of feedback can be turned to your advantage if you are able to influence this. Giving you feedback weeks after the event will not serve you or the feedback provider very well; as the impact and relevance are often long gone. It can be difficult for managers with very busy diaries to make time for regular feedback with their reports, so think about ways you can work together to create an ongoing space for this dialogue. If this is done well, it can be a powerful tool for your personal development while contributing to a high performance and positive culture.
If you find yourself in a formal review situation, you have the chance to move the discussion in a direction that will help you to understand the issue and address it. Make the natural pauses in conversation work for you by asking questions that clarify the feedback further. This should add structure to the conversation and help you retain useful comments more easily.
‘Off-the-cuff’ feedback can be harder to respond to, but consider why your manager or colleague has chosen to approach you in this way. Perhaps the feedback is less serious, or maybe they are trying to be discreet. What does the way they handle the situation say about their relationship with you? It is likely that some thought has been given to the discussion, so use this opening to assess your strengths and weaknesses through their eyes.
Turn negatives into positives
When it comes to receiving feedback, the way you respond in the moment will influence your colleagues’ impression of you, and will continue to influence their perception of your work. While those offering advice or feedback should always be aware of how their delivery will cause you to react, there will be times when they misjudge. It may be difficult to see value in feedback that upsets or frustrates you, but listening actively and reflecting with an open mind should help you to come away with a better understanding of the problem. Try to maintain objectivity and see the opportunities for positive change.
Receiving criticism well is different to agreeing with it, and showing that you can take feedback well not only helps to diffuse any awkwardness, but ensures that your colleague is more likely to be honest with you in future.
Understand the consequences of the feedback
If your credibility is already established within your organisation and this feedback simply points out ways to improve even further, then it may help to reflect at leisure on what is being suggested. If, however, the feedback is pointing out something fundamental with long term relevance, then however much you might want to resist what you are hearing, you need to consider immediately and very carefully what your next steps will be. It may help to gauge the opinion of a trusted mentor or close colleague. If the long term ramifications of this feedback represent a significant barrier to your career or progression within the organisation, you should take this feedback as a helpful stimulus to serious reflection on what you do and how you do it.
Feedback is as much about the giver as it is about the receiver. If you receive feedback which makes you uneasy it’s always worth validating it by discussing it with someone who knows you and the situation well, and who has your respect. With the right questions asked, and the right amount of reflection, it is possible to maximise your learning and come away with a better understanding of yourself and your work life.
Roger Delves is Dean of Qualifications and Head of the People and Leadership faculty at Ashridge Executive Education. He has been Professor of Leadership and Teams at Hult International Business School’s London campus since 2009. In 2013 he was voted MBA Professor of the Year by Hult students. His special interests are understanding the roles of authenticity, emotional intelligence, ethics and integrity in leadership, and the development of ethical decision making methodologies.
Sona Sherratt is a faculty member at Ashridge Executive Education where she designs, teaches and client directs on several executive education programmes with clients such as SAB Miller, Avis, Renew and Continental. Sona has designed and delivered senior leadership and general management programmes for clients around the world. Her interests are predominantly in leadership, change management, influencing, motivation and long-term sustained learning. She facilitates learning support groups, action learning sets and provides executive coaching to help improve individual performance.