The Key To Successful Feedback Conversations

Pop quiz: which of these statements is true? 

  1. Employees desperately want more feedback from managers
  2. Managers want to give employees feedback that will improve their performance
  3. Too few feedback conversations occur
  4. Many efforts to give feedback go poorly
  5. All of the above

Unsurprisingly, the answer is 5. 

Employees crave more feedback (even more so than additional pay!) but often find the feedback they do get unhelpful or demotivating. Managers want to provide feedback but often avoid the conversations because of the anxiety they can cause and the reactions of their staff. 

Fortunately, great feedback conversations – ones that promote reflection, learning and growth – do happen. And you can work to make them more frequent and fulfilling. Yet far too much time is spent preparing to give feedback, when it is equally important to spend time preparing to receive it. 

Here are three ways to prepare yourself to hear feedback. 

1. Check in your emotions before you receive the feedback.

Going into feedback conversations can be stressful. We worry what our manager will say, what that means for our future career prospects, what it means for paying the mortgage, our standing in the company… and the spiral can continue. When our bodies are highly stressed, our brain releases cortisol and adrenaline, which put you into fight or flight mode. The result – what is known as the amygdala hijack – puts you in a state where you are not able to productively receive feedback.

To avoid this it’s important to practice emotional self-awareness to identify emotions you may be feeling prior to or during the feedback session. Acknowledge the emotions you are feeling (think, “name it to tame it”) and the physical reactions they are precipitating, then focus on your breath until your stress levels decline. 

If you are a manager giving feedback, help your employee avoid the hijack by priming your audience and framing the conversation so they are able to see the situation and behaviour you are highlighting from your perspective, rather than as an attack.

2. Embrace humility

It’s often said that feedback is a gift. But no one asks for feedback on Christmas morning! That’s because receiving feedback requires you to accept that you may have failed to deliver on a goal, have disappointed a colleague, or not met the expectations of a leader. The impact of these can quickly move to feelings of personal failings or weakness, even in such instances where the giver of feedback does not intend to wound you.

Shortly after taking over as CEO of The Humphrey Group in 2014, my VP of People and Operations suggested we do a culture survey. I was committed to creating a thriving, healthy culture, and had invested a lot of time and energy in the region I had been running, Western Canada, to create just such an environment. Now that I was running the whole company I thought this was a great idea. And of course, I knew the survey would show how other regions could be lifted up to the level of the West!

When the survey came back, it was a shock. I’ll never forget reading that people – from all regions – did not believe THG’s culture (including the West) was where it needed to be. There was some harsh feedback, both qualitative and quantitative, for me and my leadership team. As we met to review it, two of my direct reports said that the comments reflected the views of malcontents who shouldn’t be here, and shouldn’t concern us as we had been growing the business every year. For a moment it was tempting to agree with them, to believe what we had been doing was sound. Doing so would absolve me of having failed, and of having to make difficult decisions in the months and years ahead.

But I realized that we had to be humble and recognize that people spoke up because they wanted our culture, our leaders, and our company to be better. I told my team that we had to take this feedback to heart and recognize we had work to do. We started a journey that day to a better culture, and I stood up in front of the company shortly after to own the mistakes we’d made and the commitment to doing better. Not all my leaders were ready to go on that journey with me and the business, but seeing those who did made me realize who I could stand with as we worked to change the culture of our company for the better.

3. Identify your takeaways

Finally, when you are receiving feedback, listen actively to summarize and aggregate your takeaways. 

I often have clients complain to me about the quality of the feedback they receive. They (accurately) point out that the giver rambles, provides too few specifics, avoids giving clear direction on desired changes, or lacks facts to substantiate their feedback.  They explain how these failings made the session a waste of time and undermines a case for changed behaviour. This tendency to deconstruct the feedback we receive is human nature; by picking apart the weaknesses of the arguments or how they are delivered we avoid having to validate and act on the suggestions they contain. 

Instead, adopt a more caring approach. Work to help the giver bring clarity to their feedback so you can summarize what they convey into key takeaways. The best way to do this is to take notes and try to get the two or three main points you are hearing down on paper. If they aren’t clear, ask the person giving you feedback to clarify, or suggest what they might be saying and seek confirmation. 

By adopting this tactic you can better capture the takeaways and then reflect on them and what you might do to act on them at a moment in time when emotions are lower. 

Summary: Practice Receiving As Much As Giving

Everyone wants to have great feedback conversations – ones that promote reflection, learning and growth – but too few know how to do it right. In our Learn to Love Feedback program at The Humphrey Group we not only tackle how to give feedback but how to receive it too. 

So the next time you hear someone would like to give you feedback… breathe, practice humility and engage in active listening. Not only will they appreciate your receptiveness, but the quality of the conversation will improve for you both. 

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