How to Harness the Power of Feedback

How to Harness the Power of Feedback

One of the biggest threats to a healthy, flourishing culture is not knowing how to give and receive constructive feedback. So many of us dread feedback, but it has the power to improve you, your people and your organization for good. Want to know the solution?

Meet Sheila Heen. She has two decades of experience at the Harvard Negotiation Project specializing in difficult conversations. She’s a lecturer on law at Harvard Law School, founder of the Triad Consulting Group, plus she’s a New York Times best-selling author who’s co-authored Thank God for the Feedback: Using Feedback to Fuel your Personal, Professional and Spiritual Growth.

Her presentation about feedback at the recent Global Leadership Summit resonated so well with creating a healthy, flourishing workplace culture, I asked her if she would share her core message. I’m so glad she said “Yes.” Keep reading, and you’ll see why.

The Challenge

“What’s hard about feedback is that it sits at the junction of two human needs. The first human need—our need to learn and grow get better at things—inevitably causes us to bump into the second human need—our need to be accepted and respected and loved for who we are, right now. Within the tension of these two needs, feedback can cause you to conclude that how (and who) I am now is not totally okay with someone else.”

Sheila outlines how constructive feedback actually leverages the tension of these two inherent human needs.

The Strategy

“To learn and grow as a person and as an organization, we need to receive three distinct types of feedback:

  • Feedback as Appreciation says, ‘I see you. I get you. You’re valued at work. You matter.’ This is how Jesus viewed people while he was on earth.
  • Coaching as Appreciation aims to help us get better at something—knowledge, skill, effectiveness, growth or maturity. The bulk of Jesus’ teaching was through parables and instruction: ‘Don’t think about it that way; think about it this way.’
  • Feedback as Evaluation rates us against expectations and our peers, but it really tells us where we stand and what to expect: How are we doing? Do we measure up? In some ways, Jesus says we always measure up in terms of his love and acceptance of us, even as we crave for more, as in the disciples who wanted to sit at Jesus’ right hand.”

Once we’re aware of these three types of feedback, how can we give feedback in a way that’s healthy and worthwhile both for ourselves and the other person?

“First,” says Sheila, “have an identity conversation with yourself: ‘What’s going on in me that makes me feel afraid of giving this piece of feedback?’ Give this some thought and prayer ahead of time. Shift your perspective from, ‘I’ve got to solve it all myself, forgive this person and take responsibility for everything,’ to, ‘I need to share responsibility with the other person: Hey, we need to talk about this. Here’s what I see going on, and the impact it’s having. I’m not saying you’re doing something on purpose (you many not even be aware of it), but it’s important enough to talk about.’ This is what it looks like to walk consistently in lovingkindness with a work colleague.”

The breakthrough to using constructive feedback happens by naming the three common triggered reactions to feedback and then taking the opportunity to practice some helpful skills. Sheila summarizes:

  • Truth Triggers cause us to ask, “Do I agree or disagree with this feedback? Is it good or bad advice?” The opportunity is to see what the giver means and to understand the feedback (even with the blind spots we all possess).
  • Relationship Triggers cause us to ask, “Who’s giving me this advice? Do I like them? Do I trust them?” All feedback lives in the relationship between the giver and the receiver. The opportunity is to think in terms of we, and untangling what’s gone awry not in you but rather between us.
  • Identity Triggers have to do with the story we tell about who we are: “If what you’re suggesting about me is true, then that’s really upsetting to me.” The opportunity is to realize your degree of sensitivity.

Sheila makes it clear that we don’t need to let the trigger be the end of the story.

The Results

“The fastest way for an organization or team to change and improve how they use feedback in their culture is for the leaders to become better receivers of feedback. The more self-aware you become of the three types of feedback and triggers, then the better able you are to receive candid feedback in ways that can make you a stronger, better leader.

“As you practice this, you’ll be modeling and valuing what others can expect to experience themselves. In effect you’ll be saying, ‘Hey look, it’s not easy. This particular feedback may seem totally ridiculous and unreasonable, and it just might be inaccurate or wrong. But what might be right, or accurate, about it? Is there anything to which we should start to pay attention?

“Research shows that people who receive feedback well adapt more quickly to new roles and new situations. They have higher work satisfaction, and in the end they actually get higher performance reviews. Knowing how to receive feedback well changes how people see them and experience working with them. They’re more competent, relaxed and easy to work with.

“When it comes to giving and receiving feedback, the most important thing to remember is you’re not alone. Leaders through the ages, including Jesus himself, struggled with what his own leadership team was trying to do, how they were going about it, plus coping with their reactions to their environment, and ultimately his own betrayal.

“Feedback can be both a practical and inspirational reminder that you’re not alone and that you can be seeking guidance throughout your Christian walk, comforted by the fact that Jesus is walking with you.”