Is Constructive Feedback Really a Gift?

“Sometimes you can’t see yourself clearly until you see yourself through the eyes of others.” - Ellen Degeneres

Every time someone gives you constructive feedback that isn't easy to accept, someone in your life will utter, "remember, feedback is a gift."

My initial reaction to that statement is, "yeah it is a gift like that stocking full of coal my mother kept threatening Santa would leave me unless I cleaned my room."

Unfortunately, the cliche is true. Feedback is a gift and one you should seek out and act on.

Why Is Feedback A Gift?

Feedback is a gift -- just in the way that any other gift is. It demonstrates that someone cares about you.

That person cares enough about your career to tell you something that they know you do not want to hear and may not be appreciative of. It is not a box of chocolates for them either, and they have probably spent some time thinking about when and how to tell you. The person cares.

When that person stops giving you feedback, you may need to worry because they may have moved on to indifference. Feedback is information you did not have before, and you may have been making assumptions or decisions without all of the relevant information.

For example, you are under the impression that the managing partner or the key client thinks you are the cat's pajamas -- when they feel your work product belongs in the litter box.

Or they may think that you do excellent work, but your clients do not believe that you communicate crisply enough to be invited to the "big meeting".

Now let's remember two things about feedback. First, in most cases, it is about a moment in time -- which means that it is not permanent and can be changed.

Now, if you have been receiving consistent feedback over the years, then you need to think about whether you have taken the actions necessary to address the feedback and whether this is the right place, career, or industry for you.

This takes time and you must be self-aware. If not, I hate to say it, you need to ask people close to you for their opinion.

Second, feedback is a perception and not all perceptions are equal. Some people are discerning and some are not. You need to evaluate the source as well as the information.

No matter how I do when I present, one friend of mine raves about my performance and I feel damn good after talking to her. But I don't get from her feedback - the input I need to reach the next level.

Another friend will tell me what I did well and whether my ticks I have warned her about have come out. This allows me to focus on those portions of my performance that I want to improve.

Whether you think those people are perceptive or not, if you hear similar comments from several sources, you need to address the feedback. Perception becomes reality in many organizations.

How To Get Feedback?

You will have a manager, mentor, and peers - in a perfect world - providing you with unsolicited constructive feedback. We don't, however, live in an ideal world.

Often, people do not feel comfortable providing feedback. So it would be best if you asked for it. It is your career after all, and getting feedback and acting on it is investing in yourself.

So what if all of the feedback you receive is "glowing"? Can you go home and sleep easy? No, don't do it.

Ask one of the following questions:

  • How can I enhance my performance?
  • What is one thing I should do differently?
  • If I was going to handle this project again, is there something else I should think about?

The feedback you seek does not need to relate to a specific assignment.

One client of mine, "Tom," during a lunch asked people he trusted the question - people suggest that we ask and we rarely do - "What do people say about me when I am not in the room?"

People appreciated that Tom was seeking to understand the perception of him in the organization and how he could improve if necessary.

Because they wanted Tom to succeed, they spent time talking about the positive attributes that the organization appreciated and his development needs. Not all of this was easy for Tom to hear and take in, but it allowed him the information to create a development/advancement plan.

If you are not "brave" enough to seek this type of feedback, you can see if your organization does 360 feedback evaluations for individuals.

If they do not, as a mentor, I have done informal 360 evaluations, where I sought out feedback for mentees. My mentee and I develop a list of people I will talk with about their performance and potential. I then compile the information and present it.

I obtain a ton of actionable information for my mentees by doing this because people are much more likely to give you the "real scoop" if they do not think it will impact your rating or compensation. Once you have this information, you can create an action plan.

How To React In The Moment?

It is not easy to receive feedback, but when someone provides constructive suggestions, you must act appropriately if you want to continue to receive that type of information.

It would be best if you did not do what one person did to me. After I gave the person constructive suggestions, she started screaming how crazy I was and did not know what was going on. This did not further the development aspects of the conversation.

Nor do you want to engage in an argument of how your approach is right and the person offering the input is wrong - especially when several people at the same meeting came to the same conclusion.

So what can you do?

Here are some ideas:

  • Listen
  • Ask for specific examples of behaviors
  • Ask for suggestions for improvement or addressing those behaviors
  • Thank the person

If you are taken off guard and are emotional, you will not hear the information. Ask the person if you can schedule a follow-up after you have time to think about their input.

How To React Later On?

Take time to digest the information and think about it. Talk to your mentors or your personal board of directors about the input. You should discuss this constructive input with supportive people who will challenge you to think differently and not just tell you what you want to hear.

Come up with a plan to address the feedback - you may even want to run it by the person who suggested it. Do a checkpoint later to see how you are improving.

The input may be such that you need to think about whether you need to leave an organization. This can be disheartening and difficult. But you have the information for you to make a decision rather than have a decision imposed upon you.

Remember, feedback is a gift - but it is only a gift if you really consider the information and, if appropriate, act on it.

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Want more tips on how you can advance in your career? Download Sheila's 10 Tips for In-House Counsel Struggling to Advance where she shares her time-tested tips for in-house counsel to release fear, jump-start your career, and propel towards promotion.

Sheila Murphy

Founder of Focus Forward Consulting

For over 20 years, as a former senior legal officer for a Fortune 50 company, I successfully developed, coached and transformed talent in corporations and law firms, as well as...