How to Handle Feedback
with Tara Mohr, Author of “Playing Big”
Tara Mohr presents valuable insights into how to “unhook” yourself from praise or criticism, and more effectively handle feedback. This is based on a chapter in her book – “Playing Big”.
The first important realisation when receiving feedback, especially criticism, is to remember that it says more about the person giving the feedback than it does about you. If a senior manager says, “you’re a great manager but your organizational skills could be improved”, then this statement contains a subjective opinion but no concrete facts about your performance.
However, you can choose to take it as potentially valuable information about the individual’s priorities and preferences that may lead to change. Much will depend on the industry you’re working in, plus your race, gender, identity, and cultural background, rather than referencing any objective standard of idealized performance.
Feedback can be a projection of the person providing its belief structure.
The Three Rs
Receiving feedback is a process comprising three steps – the three R’s.
1: REFRAME – take in what’s being said and ask what it says about the preferences and assumptions of the individual providing the feedback.
2: RELEVANCE – Consider whether the feedback is relevant to your goals – i.e., is it something you need to incorporate or not? Tara points out that too many women in business tend to want to consider everyone’s feedback as equally valuable when this is frequently not the case.
3: REVISE – However, if there IS validity in what is being said, then you may want to consider revising your working methods, at least to better achieve your goals.
One of your goals may be to please a particular manager to gain promotion. In other words, the changes you make may be instrumental towards a higher goal.
A key concept Tara discusses is “unhooking” and this applies as equally to praise as to negative feedback. Unhooking is distancing yourself from the immediate emotional response – the “fight or flight” urge.
Criticism that hits home mirrors a belief you may hold, perhaps erroneously, about yourself. It’s important to recognize this without becoming defensive or devastated. Even when receiving praise, this can be about seeking confirmation about what we’d most like to believe about ourselves.
Aim to “find the match” between what is being said and why it makes you feel concerned, so that your response is no longer about the person giving feedback. Unhooking is about setting the emotional response to one side and applying intellectual curiosity.
With praise, you must ask, what hole is it filling? This may involve looking back at lessons learned in childhood and seeing what insecurity may have developed from that stage.
Praise is not Validation
Praise is to validation as junk food is to healthy food. Validation comes from achieving your goals, not primarily from the compliments of others. The problem with junk food is you can never have enough. Validation lies in achieving a better self-image and self-confidence. Praise should be considered the “cherry on top” of achievement.
Defensiveness and Generous Listening
Fight or flight is often the first response of any negative feedback and it can present as defensiveness. This is an emotional, gut response, rather than an intellectual one. Bringing the brain back online and not presenting a knee-jerk response sometimes just takes practice.
Use the request “tell me more” to gain more insight, while buying time to cool down and take stock. Generous listening is when you are listening for an insight into how the other person is experiencing the world. It’s a way of gathering data which you can take away and consider.
Honest curiosity beats the common responses of defensiveness or devastation every time.
The Importance of Communication
When we first meet a new person, we assess them on just two criteria:
- How likeable / dangerous are they?
- How competent are they?
The former axis (likeability) comes first, and instinctively. Through an evolutionary lens, this makes a lot of sense. We may once have needed to trigger our fight or flight response very quickly. Competence assessment takes time.
When encountering a colleague for the first time, don’t worry initially about presenting a lot of evidence of competence. Instead, be engaging, ask questions and don’t try to over-compensate. You can back this up with evidence of competence later.
Remember that an assessment of likeability rarely changes over time and first impressions can last. However, competency assessments can and do change quickly, with new evidence and examples.
Women can sometimes find themselves in a double-bind, worried that one aim works against the other (likeability versus providing proof of competence). By splitting the approach into phases, you don’t have to worry about this false dichotomy.
You also shouldn’t always aim for perfection. Perfectionism can be your enemy, stifling creativity and your ability to actually bring something perfectly good (if not perfect) to market.
Sometimes your style of leadership may simply not be right for an organizational culture and the feedback may be a trigger to move on, if making the necessary changes is unpalatable.
On the other hand, if there’s an opportunity to talk openly with senior management about leadership styles, then that approach may be worthwhile.
This is a specific type of feedback, but you can use the same approach. Don’t always assume it’s valid but do ask what it says about what your customers expect and want.
Tara gave some pointers on giving feedback as well. Key to this is “Owning the ‘I’”. In other words, bear in mind that you are really telling the person how their work is making you feel. Don’t be under the illusion that you are providing objective truth.
This is the flipside of the protective approach you take to receiving such feedback yourself.
Just as an organization undergoing significant change may have a “transition team”, you might think of yourself as being part of such a team creating change in culture and the world of work.
Like any such transition, it will proceed in fits and starts, with setbacks and gains, in the search for a more equitable and inclusive world.