Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

How to Turn Tough Criticism Into Serious Success

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A tough performance review. An offhanded comment from your boss. Even a co-worker’s subtly raised eyebrow during a meeting.

Whether it’s given directly or merely implied, feedback is an unavoidable part of office life—and, man, can it sting sometimes.

But it doesn’t have to—if you know how to transform that criticism into an opportunity to listen and learn—says Douglas Stone, co-author of Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well.

In his book, Stone and co-author Sheila Heen—both organizational consultants and Harvard Law School lecturers—try to pinpoint why feedback can be so hard to swallow by drawing on their experiences working with major corporations, nonprofits, and governments around the world. And what they found was that feedback’s effectiveness often lies not in how it’s given, but in how it’s received.

“If I find a way to somehow disqualify feedback because I don’t agree with it, the challenge of that is that I don’t learn, I don’t grow, and I don’t improve,” Stone says.

So we sat down with Stone to discuss the ways in which people tend to distort feedback, as well as how to prevent it from sending us into a shame spiral—and how to even use it to our advantage in the workplace.

Just the anticipation of receiving feedback can cause our hearts to race. What makes it so scary?

Part of it is that sometimes feedback is bad news, so it’s reasonable to get upset. But feedback can also challenge your sense of who you are.

Even if we want feedback—because it helps us grow and get better—we also want people to like us just the way we are. We want to feel good about the way things are now, so we get caught in this conundrum of wanting two opposite things at once.

Perhaps that’s why even a minor critique can feel like the end of the world. Why does criticism affect us so much?

We often exaggerate what we hear—and then react to what we’re imagining we’re hearing.

In my book, we talk about the “Google bias.” So if someone tells you that your presentation didn’t go well, it’s as if we Google “everything that’s wrong with me” and get a million hits. You think, “I’m a disaster. I can’t do anything right.”

Suddenly, this piece of feedback that was about one particular thing causes us to spiral downward, which can be devastating.

What are common ways in which we distort or avoid criticism?

People think that feedback can go wrong in many ways, but there are really three primary categories of triggers. One is what we call the “truth trigger.” In this case, the feedback either doesn’t make sense to us or feels wrong or out of date, so we are likely to reject it. The challenge is that we judge the feedback way too quickly, without really understanding what the other person means by it.

There’s also the “identity trigger,” which is when feedback challenges the way you see yourself. You deny the feedback because it’s too painful, or you shut down in some way.

And then there’s the “relationship trigger.” Feedback always arrives in the context of some sort of relationship, and if we have issues with the person giving the feedback, that’s going to show up in how we respond to it.

So let’s say I covered for you when you were on maternity leave, and when you come back, you complain about the way I treated one of your clients. My reaction might be, “That’s the thanks I get for helping you?” But the fact that I was helping you and the way I treated your client are not actually related topics. The relationship issues end up getting in the way of the feedback itself.

You need to have communication around what’s not working and how to improve, and if one person is shutting off [communication], there’s no way for the person who’s dissatisfied to talk—and that can be incredibly toxic to the relationship.

So how should you respond when you feel slighted, discouraged, or confused by feedback?

If we hear feedback we don’t agree with, it’s not about pretending that you agree with it, nor is it about responding that the feedback is wrong. It’s about saying, “Here’s what I’m confused about. Help me understand.”

For instance, if your boss said your presentation didn’t have enough energy—but you thought it did—you might say, “Tell me more about what you mean by that.” Maybe when she says the word “energy,” she means something totally different than what you think she means by it, like you weren’t looking at individual people enough.

If, once you clarify what the feedback means, and you still disagree, you can say something like, “I appreciate what you’re saying, but we might have different preferences.”

What’s the right way to ask for constructive feedback?

You want to be very specific. You can ask, “What’s one thing I could work on? What’s one thing that’s getting in my own way?”

Another approach that’s really useful is to clarify what you’re working on and what would help you. For instance, there might be 10 ways you could improve the presentation you just did, but right now you just want feedback on connecting with a group at the very beginning of a presentation.

The wrong way to ask for this feedback is to say, “If you’ve got feedback for me, let me know.” The problem is that the person might not know what you’re looking for—and may have 20 different pieces of feedback. They don’t know where to start, and the whole thing feels overwhelming.

Are there times when we should ignore feedback?

Yes, if the intention of the feedback is to help you in some way and it’s not. Then you may have to say, “You’re trying to help me, but this is actually just making me anxious and upset.”

If you feel that the person is not listening to your response and doesn’t seem to care that the feedback is upsetting you or doesn’t make sense to you—that’s an inherent problem. There comes a point when it’s just better to say, “I’m not going to discuss this anymore.”

While doing research, did you find that men and women received feedback differently?

I think the stereotype is that women get emotional about upsetting feedback, and that men blow it off and don’t care. I don’t find either of those to be particularly true. What is true is that there are people who are more sensitive to feedback, and there are people who are less sensitive—but it’s not cut across gender lines.

The best thing to remember is that not everyone responds to feedback the way you do. If you don’t find feedback particularly upsetting, you might go around giving very blunt feedback to other people—and some of them are going to be upset by it.

Plus, you’re not recognizing the impact you have. I would treat each individual as a separate case and get to know that person’s style, tendencies, and what the individual finds challenging. If you do that, you’re off to a really good start.

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