Taking control of your feedback experiences
Feedback is a tool that is commonly used in organisations as a mechanism for growth and change. It’s typically expected that a manager or team leader will give feedback periodically on an individual’s performance to help the individual grow and develop, and also for the team and organization to better develop.
This isn’t an article on how to give feedback. This is an article on how you might deal with feedback you receive – particularly given its power and potency to be for good or for harm. Like any tool, feedback can be misused, misapplied, and have bad consequences when used by someone without the appropriate competency.
The quality of feedback
So what is feedback? A very technical definition: ‘A process in which the outputs of a system are fed back as inputs to the system as a way to determine effectiveness or completeness‘. It’s a way of making sense of information of something’s performance, and using that to shape future actions and decisions of performance. It’s how you know whether something’s working well or not.
With humans, (because feedback can also happen in non-human systems) feedback should be understood as one person’s perception, interpretation, or even storytelling of what sense they have made of another person’s activity. They are offering a perspective to a person as a potential input to activate change or confirm levels of performance.
For feedback to be worthwhile, the receiver also needs to make sense of it, which means that the feedback needs to be clear, meaningful, relevant, specific examples are used, and it also helps if it’s constructive rather than destructive.
And here is where the problem lies. Who gets to determine what is clear, meaningful, relevant and constructive? The giver or the receiver? I’m arguing it’s the receiver. The giver, if adequately trained and appropriately discerning, can have a go at achieving those qualities, but ultimately You as the receiver have to make the call. After all, it’s your system that is being examined, and only You can decide and enact any changes.
Options for dealing with poor feedback
If the quality of feedback you get isn’t good, you have options.
- Reject it outright, hopefully with as little emotional impact as possible. But sometimes raging with a safe person and expressing your feelings with bad language can help. It might not be pretty, but sometimes that’s what the situation deserves – and that’s okay! (And if you can’t find a friendly ear – then write down what you’re really thinking and feeling in a letter to the person, and then burn it – ‘cos it’s not something you would actually send unless you want to escalate the situation.)
- Invest a small amount of time extracting some usefulness from the content or experience. There’s probably something worthwhile to learn, even if it’s how it made you feel, or how you choose to respond.
- Reflect it back. Empathise that the giver is telling you much about their worldview and what’s important to them, and echo back to them what you are receiving. They might not be aware that they are potentially sharing what they most need to hear, and you can simply be a conduit for an input to them rather than receive it yourself.
- Ask for a second pass on the feedback content: Seek additional clarity or context from the original giver; or get an alternative perspective from another person associated with the context. Something may have been missed out; or miscommunicated – and you don’t have to accept the first version.
- Check with a trusted advisor and see if they can give you something useful for growth – something that may not even be directly related to the current matter. This can simply be to confirm your general willingness for growth and development; and in a step in a positive direction away from feedback that was of poor quality.
- Be the one to give feedback back, on the idea of feedback and how you experienced the feedback experience. If you can’t find useful words, then start by sharing this article: Why Feedback Rarely Does What Its Meant to Do – The Feedback Fallacy.
Shaping your feedback experiences
Feedback can be a loop that is endlessly repeated. Human systems are not a closed system (unlike mechanical systems) so feedback is an exchange of energy, and a symbiotic relationship, where surviving and thriving can depend on each other. So consider – what kind of relationship might need to exist between giver and receiver and is there something more fundamental to work on instead.
Even with relationship interdependency, each human can be a self-regulating system. This means that you are capable of higher order reflection about your own performance choices and actions, and can use your own judgment and intuition to shape future behaviours. It is important that you know and connect to your own inner sense of truth for any personal development. This is the touchstone against which you can evaluate the advice and input of others.
When processing feedback, consider what things over which you can actually exert control (i.e. choose to start, stop or continue action). There will be things that you may need to simply note as context. Expend your precious resources of attention, time and energy on things you can control. Allow for some things to influence your thinking if they can be useful, and let go of the rest. Accepting that things ‘are what they are’ isn’t submission or agreement – rather it’s acknowledging the situation and deciding if you want to do something about it.
If you know you’re about to receive feedback from someone – like a team leader or manager – then first do your own reflection. Ask questions and take notes as you consider: how you think you’re going; what areas you think could be targeted for improvement; and how you’d like to address them. A great team leader or manager would encourage you to do this. They would first seek to hear your thoughts, before deciding if, and when, they might have something valuable to contribute. Such an approach increases your own capacity to do self-assessment, and ability to judge your performance more accurately.
You are an adult, not a child, and don’t need a parental approach in the workplace. Should there be something significant to address with advice from the giver’s perspective, then that should be handled as a mature adult-to-adult conversation. And even then it can be presented as an invitation, rather than a directive.
Consider who you actively give consent to give you feedback. Pick trusted people who have demonstrated their ability to be the right kind of feedback giver for you: People who know about when, what and how to provide feedback that is about you, and for you. These people genuinely care about you; they serve your best interests; they believe in you and what you are doing; and they don’t require you to be anything but the best version of yourself along with the imperfections that come with being human.
When you’re in an organisational context, you may have to hear feedback from someone in authority, but you don’t have to receive it. Choosing not to receive and act on feedback, can be a healthy, active self-care as well as an indication of mature self leadership. Not all feedback givers in authority are actually appropriate or competent for the task, and there is a risk they do more harm than good – so protect yourself. Bad feedback doesn’t need to mean you can’t achieve healthy growth, though it may take a bit more time and involve a bit of First Aid to address injury first.
Bottom line – you are not defined by what others say or think you are. As the sovereign of your Self unLimited, you get to decide your path, and the quality of the feedback that helps you develop.
Helen Palmer, Founder of Self unLimited, has been in many workscape situations that included feedback experiences. She reflects on such things to offer fresh advice to help others navigate power dynamics, and exert self-leadership. She’s a strong advocate for self-care, and getting real and practical to prevent harm and enable people to express their best selves at work.