The best gift you can give (or get): Feedback

Feedback is a gift.

Think about it. If someone takes the time to share her perceptions of your work, your performance, that means she cares. She cares enough to take her time and energy to help you. It may not feel like a gift when you first get the feedback. Especially if it is negative. But once you get over the initial shock or hurt, you may find a kernal of truth that will help you be a better leader, do a better job or solve a tough problem.

But most of us avoid feedback. When’s the last time you asked for feedback? When’s the last time you gave someone honest feedback? Picture a workplace where individuals had the capacity to accept and give feedback that was constructive and truly beneficial. In Somerset Maugham’s novel, Of Human Bondage, there is a particularly poignant moment of feedback between a young artist and his teacher, a master artist. The student asks for an honest assessment of his capabilities. This is what he got:

“You have a certain manual dexterity. With hard work and perseverance there is no reason why you should not become a careful, not incompetent painter. You would find hundreds who painted worse than you, hundreds who painted as well. I see no talent in anything you have shown me. I see industry and intelligence. You will never be anything but mediocre.”

“If you were to ask my advice, I should say: take your courage in both hands to try your luck at something else. It sounds very hard, but let me tell you this: I would give all I have in the world if someone had given me that advice when I was your age and I had taken it … It is cruel to discover one’s mediocrity only when it is too late.”

Pretty tough feedback. But honest. People today are thirsty for honest feedback. Simon Cowell (think American Idol) gained fame and fortune because he was willing to give honest (sometimes brutal) feedback. All he did was be specific, to-the-point and honest. He didn’t even need to be correct.

So if feedback is a gift, how do you make sure you graciously accept it?

Don’t argue. If you don’t understand the feedback or you disagree with it, ask for specific examples of your behavior. You will know very quickly how valid the feedback is. If you get nothing specific, most likely the feedback is noise. If you get specifics, then you have data to fix your behavior.

Don’t interrupt. No matter how much you are tempted to do so. Interrupt only to get clear on what is being said to you. Tactfully ask for evidence, i.e., “What did I say or do that makes you think that?”

Judge content, not delivery. Concentrate on the topic, what is being said and tolerate bad delivery.

Most of all, enjoy your gift and take feedback to heart. Here’s a good article from Harvard Business School about putting feedback to good use.

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Heather Coleman

Feedback is so important! I would say it is a critical skill to be able to give constructive feedback. Too positive or too negative and it will be dismissed. You really have to strike a good balance and be honest and authentic. I still have issues myself with taking negative feedback, but I’m learning. Typically I just try and listen and absorb, then take some time to myself to think through what was said. Simon was always my favorite judge! I do appreciate brutal honesty. Pretty sure he would make me cry though.

Lauren Modeen

Fantastic Nancy. And thanks for the Of Human Bondage quote. One of my all time favorite (longer) books. Honest, thoughtful, informed, authentic feedback is truly a gift. Would you want someone to tell you if you were driving in the wrong direction? Or had a rip in your sweater you couldn’t see? I would. If you can separate out the emotion and focus on the fact, entirely useful. Admitting you are not as good at something as you may think is hugely useful in the scheme of your life.

Carol Davison

If they are accurate, I always try to remember to say “thank you for correcting me” in order to obtain additional feedback.

You can tell they are accurate because “if three people call you a horse, buy a saddle.”

Carol Davison

How receptive do you find people to feedback? I remember a friend says never give advice. The wise don’t need it and the fool won’t heed it.

Also I believe that no one including Simon should give feedback until they know they are correct. I often ask “what were you thinking when you…” I’ve learned that we are mistaken in 50% of our impressions.