Are you allergic to feedback?

When I was young, I grew up with a dad who intended to help me be the very best I could be. No matter how I performed, he always asked me if that was the best I could do, even when I brought home all A’s. I became extremely fearful of making mistakes, and I certainly didn’t want anyone to know if I performed less than perfectly on something. I dropped out of sports and musical activities as soon as I got feedback that my performance was less than stellar.

When I look back, I regret missing out on these opportunities. I regret that I didn’t have a “growth mindset” because a fear of failure kept me from trying new things. I know my dad was well-intentioned and genuinely wanted me to improve continually, but he unwittingly contributed to what I call a “feedback allergy.”

Fortunately, through my training as a psychologist and a coach, I received a lot of feedback from supervisors, clients and colleagues. Like most things, receiving feedback became much more comfortable with practice. Plus, wanting to be a great executive coach and psychologist, I realized that feedback was the heart and soul of developing that expertise and excellence.

By getting better at both receiving and integrating feedback from others, I have become better at giving feedback too. I understand that telling others (when appropriate) what they are doing that undermines their success or the team’s success is kind and helpful. Just being nice to keep harmony and avoid hurting someone’s feelings is neither kind nor helpful.

Management guru Ken Blanchard coined the phrase, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” He was making the point that you don’t develop superior performance without continually getting feedback from the outside, tweaking your behaviors and practicing the new ones over and over. Feedback should be a continuous loop: We try an action, we get feedback from our own experience and others, then we iterate and reiterate to make the behavior more precise, more skillful, and the like. As Blanchard implies in his slogan, this happens all the time in sports. In sports, we teach our children that feedback is a normal and necessary part of playing the game.

In my experience, the process of feedback on teams and in the workplace is very different from sports. Many managers, employees, and teams are much more like I was: allergic to feedback. Why is this?

One problem is that managers tie feedback to the dreaded performance review, which in many companies happens once a year (or less!). Even as we begin the third decade of the 21st century, feedback during performance reviews often goes one direction only, with the manager giving feedback to the employee. The employee may occasionally have the chance to evaluate themselves and to write a response to the manager’s feedback. Rarely is the feedback designed in both directions so that the employee is evaluating their manager as well.

There are several ways to make feedback more effective and less hard to swallow. For starters, feedback is best when we give and receive it often and close in time to the behavior or action in question. It also works best when the boss or manager is a good role model for how to take feedback. Good bosses ask their direct reports in one-to-one meetings and in team meetings for input on how they are doing as a boss and where they can do better. Good bosses take the feedback to heart, thanking the employee for sharing it and incorporating it into their behavior in ways that show the employee that they have done so.

So how do you handle feedback? Are you open and curious, or are you defensive, denying and making excuses?

Can you listen and stay open when people see you in a way that you don’t intend or that is out of your awareness? Can you sincerely thank the other person for the feedback and try to incorporate it into a change in your behavior? When we jump in right away to explain our point of view, it can sound defensive. While you don’t want to share your perspective right off the bat, it can be useful once you demonstrate that you have fully heard and understood the feedback being offered.

As my own experience has taught me, the only way to grow out of an allergy to feedback is to expose yourself to it more often and even to invite it. You might learn to enjoy this process, and you will know that you are becoming a better leader and a better version of yourself every day!

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