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Why We Don't Use Feedback (and How We Can Remedy the Situation)

Recently, Angela Lane shared a terrific post on LinkedIn titled "20 Reasons Why We Don't Give Feedback." I would like to address the other side of the equation, that is, why we don't seek, accept, and use feedback.

If you really want to enhance your ability to learn and develop, you need to get serious about seeking, accepting, and using feedback (Candy, 1991; McCall & Hollenbeck, 2002; Spreitzer, et al., 1997). Our perceptions of ourselves are so limited that we can’t rely solely on our self-assessment. Just as eyewitness testimony has been shown through research to be inherently unreliable, self-assessment is also unreliable because we tend to overestimate, underestimate, or misperceive our abilities. In short, we have imperfect vision and blind spots when it comes to ourselves and as a result we make some pretty common mistakes. Two common reasons we don't seek, accept, and use feedback are described below.

1 - Failure to See the Need

I Don’t Need Feedback! – Have you ever said that, either in words or through your actions? Sometimes people say that they have no need for feedback because they believe they have a complete and accurate understanding of themselves, and therefore have no need for further development. I have heard it many times, especially from more senior executives in organizations. Individuals who take this position may be resistant to the idea of receiving feedback because they fear what the feedback might reveal and force them to face, and it makes them very uncomfortable to consider opening “Pandora’s Box” of feedback. Resistance to 360-degree feedback is so prevalent that I frequently use a humorous, tongue-in-cheek David Letterman-style list of the “Top Ten Reasons for Rejecting Feedback” in leadership development programs, just to help defuse the tension and apprehension that participants are feeling as they prepare to read their 360-degree feedback report. (If you would like to get a copy of the Top Ten list, just send me a note on the "Contact" page of this website…I’m glad to share it!)

“I’m Awesome” – Some recent research (okay, it was Dilbert) stated that as many as 74% of managers believe they are above average. Hmmmm….. do the math. Some of us think we have better leadership skills, more intelligence, and a better life than our peers. Our perceptions are correct, our ideas are brilliant, and our results are without compare! We’re totally awesome, and if we only weren’t dragged down by the less talented people we have to work with we could change the world (or at least run the company)! Why would I need feedback?

It’s too easy to fall into self-delusional beliefs about our how skilled and effective we are, based on our limited perspective alone. In fact, the more success we experience, and the more positive reinforcement we get, the more likely we are to experience the success delusion, which goes like this: “I behave this way. I am successful. Therefore, I must be successful because I behave this way.” In reality, many of us have succeeded in spite of some of those behaviors, but our blind spots may have prevented us from seeing flaws or accepting that others have observed them.

2 - Fear of Feedback

On the other side of this continuum are people who fear feedback, and therefore avoid seeking it at all. There are many reasons for this: not knowing what others think of them and their performance; having previous bad experiences with feedback that was inexpertly delivered; lack of trust with a manager; lack of confidence in their own performance; and, a general avoidance of information that challenges or disconfirms their own perceptions or beliefs about their performance or abilities. For some individuals, just the idea of receiving feedback can create anxiety and self-doubt, which in turn makes it difficult to actually understand and use the feedback messages constructively.

Feedback: Corrective Lenses for Imperfect Vision and Blind Spots

To make the most of feedback, perhaps we need a new concept of it and how we can approach it in a way that optimizes the opportunity.

If we rely only on our own perceptions and the conclusions we draw from them, we are like a driver navigating the interstate at high speeds with imperfect vision and a huge blind spot that limits our ability to see the dangerous traffic and conditions around us. Imagine that you are the driver of a car that is involved in a crash in an intersection. When the police officer arrives to take an incident report, who should be interviewed to determine what happened? You and the other driver, because you were both involved in the accident. It just so happens that there were people standing on each of the four corners of the intersection, and they all stayed at the scene to offer help and to tell the officer what they saw. Should they be interviewed also? Of course! It wouldn’t be a complete picture if the officer interviewed just you and the other driver. You both have something at stake in the incident: a traffic citation that could result in fines or other penalties; possible insurance claims and premium increases; a strong need to not feel guilty, careless, or even stupid; and a strong need not to look bad in the eyes of others.

So, your point of view, even though you are a first-hand witness who actually experienced the incident, may not be the most reliable. It’s possible that, even with the input of all of the witnesses, the actual “objective” truth will never be known. It’s certain that the whole story can never be told, and the complete picture will never be seen, without hearing from the people who had a ring-side seat.

Since human beings are fallible and prone to making these and other mistakes, we need a way to take perspective, so that we can adjust our perceptions to a more nuanced point of view. “Taking perspective” is a great way to think about feedback, because it allows you to consider multiple points of view, or perspectives, about yourself by listening to other people. It doesn’t mean that every point of view is going to bring new insight; it might just confirm something you already know. It also doesn’t mean that every point of view is absolute truth, handed down from the gods. It only means that you gain additional information about yourself and how others perceive you, so that you can then determine what – if anything – you want to do as a result of knowing the information.

If we purposely look at feedback as a pair of corrective lenses that provide additional information for our consideration and fill in the gaps in our perception - essentially correcting our vision - maybe we can minimize our fears and experience it as a valuable tool for our growth and development. Seen in this way, feedback is a highly effective way to gain a broader, more balanced view of yourself that contributes multiple perspectives, sheds new light on situations and behavior, and fills in the picture to create new, deeper understanding.

If you're interested in gaining more from feedback, consider the following ideas on how to improve your skills at seeking, receiving, and using feedback to develop.

Seeking Feedback

In leadership development programs, I sometimes address the “Comfort Zone” when discussing the difficulty of making lasting change in long-term behavior patterns. The Comfort Zone looks something like this:

The Comfort Zone represents the normal, day-to-day pattern of your life, where you have achieved a sense of psychological safety, where you know what to expect from others, and are comfortable with your ability to achieve the results you desire. You are not stretched too much, and you have the skills and competencies you need to do your job. You feel, well, comfortable.

Seeking, or asking for feedback, is a big step, because you can’t be certain what people will say. It purposely opens the door to new and potentially disturbing or unsettling information about how others perceive your behavior, leadership style, or effectiveness. Seeking feedback can take you out of your Comfort Zone, because it creates the possibility that you will confront something that makes you ... uncomfortable. In other words, it may take you into the Challenge/Growth Zone, where you have heard something that would cause you to change your behavior, your leadership style, or some other aspect of yourself, and it will cause you to grow as a result of dealing with the challenge.

Because asking for feedback poses the risk that you might not like what you hear, make the request with positive intentions and an open mind to really hear what the feedback giver will tell you. If you can’t approach a feedback discussion with someone with willingness and openness to listen and hear what they are saying, it is probably better not to solicit feedback from them. Merely asking someone for feedback, without listening to learn and expand your self-awareness, could create a barrier in the relationship. If you respond negatively, push back, defend yourself, argue/debate, and fail to listen, or the feedback provider believes that you are just “going through the motions” but are not serious about understanding what they are trying to communicate to you, they will think twice about giving you honest and open feedback in the future.

Accepting feedback for development

When someone agrees to provide you with candid, honest feedback on your leadership competency strengths and development needs, they probably expect that you will be open to their point of view, and that you value their perspective. That’s a pretty reasonable expectation. However, accepting feedback can be a little threatening sometimes, so you need to manage your emotions in order to make the most of the feedback. Remember: you asked for the feedback, and it is in your own best interest to listen and learn! Following are a few tips to help you with accepting feedback for development:

  1. Take time to understand what the person giving the feedback is trying to convey. It can be just as difficult to give feedback as it is to receive feedback. There are risks for the feedback giver just as there are risks for the receiver. So, don’t hurry through the discussion to get it over with; they are taking valuable time to honestly share their point of view, so they are giving you a gift that you probably receive infrequently. Just because someone gives you feedback does not mean that it is the “Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth,” but it does mean that you now have another piece of the puzzle that you are trying to piece together. Understanding what someone is trying to tell you is not the same as accepting it as the final word.

  2. Think about the feedback to determine if you see it as valid, accurate, and helpful. Don’t just automatically reject feedback that you disagree with, if you think it is invalid, inaccurate, or unhelpful. Remember: you are not a perfect judge or unbiased observer of yourself. What others have to say may be uncomfortable to hear, but it may also contain real value.

  3. Compare feedback from different sources to see if you can identify any common themes or trends. Think about the feedback to identify any underlying patterns of behavior, or attitudes that either hinder or help your development and performance. If you find any patterns, consider what it means. It could reflect a deep preference or personality trait that could be difficult to change, or it could indicate a habit of behavior that is malleable.

  4. How important does it seem to be? Feedback from a trusted source that they perceive a significant problem or behavioral trend that could injure others and/or your own career or relationships is clearly very important, and deserves to be explored and addressed. Remember, this is feedback that YOU asked for, about something specific or for a specific purpose, from people that you trust. If the feedback is about something that you think is small or inconsequential, it would be wise to not just ignore it: what is small or inconsequential to you might be large and important to the feedback giver. And, in that case, it is worthy of your attention.

  5. How difficult or easy is it to change? If you are like most people, you have gotten enough formal feedback over the years and have recognized in your own behavior that certain traits, behaviors, or strengths and weaknesses are mentioned over and over again. Chances are that you know what you’re really great at (what has made you successful up until the present) and what you’re not so great at (the traits or behaviors that have hindered your performance and/or growth). These traits are often very difficult to change, and the most you can do is to either find ways to leverage the strengths, and minimize the impact of your weaknesses. On the other hand, some of these things might be behavioral habits or patterns that you do without being aware you are doing them; just becoming aware of them, and then substituting other behaviors in their place is one possibility.

  6. Make sure you thank the feedback giver for taking the time to share their perspective with you! Again, you asked for feedback, and they put thought and effort into doing so. It is a valuable thing, and deserves some appreciation and thanks.

  7. Put your thanks and appreciation into action. Don’t just say “Thanks!” and leave it at that. The best thanks are to take the feedback to heart, reflect on it to determine the most valuable messages for you, and decide what you will do to address it. And then, of course, take action to address the feedback.

If you find yourself overwhelmed with feedback or a challenge, you may encounter the “Freak-Out Zone,” in which you are unable to cope with the amount of change, you experience a stress overload, and instead of growing and developing you become immobilized or dysfunctional in the situation. In that case, clearly you should step back and reevaluate whether or not you want to pursue the feedback or challenge that led to the breakdown.

Using feedback for development

Of course, feedback that isn't acted on to create changed or improved behavior or performance is only words. The following tips may help you use feedback to its best effect.

  1. Focus and prioritize. If you have identified a few key themes or trends in the feedback you received, decide on the few, most important items to focus on. Make them your priorities for development.

  2. Set achievable goals. For each of your development priorities, establish a goal to address the feedback. This could be performance improvement, behavior or leadership style change, or something else. It all depends on your feedback and what you believe is most important for you to address. Make sure you specify how you and others will know when you have achieved the goals.

  3. Lay out a plan of action. Decide on a few key actions or steps you will take to achieve each goal. Make sure you specify how you and others will be able to know you are taking action on the goals. Build specific checkpoints in the plan to take stock of progress against the goal, and to hold yourself accountable for following through.

  4. Plan on time to reflect. Self-reflection is a powerful way to generate insight, growth, and change of all types. Set aside a few minutes each week to recall the previous week's activities - successes, failures, challenges - and ask yourself how you worked toward your development goals.

  5. Cultivate a learning mindset. Learning Mindset is an attitude that predisposes you to be open to new experiences, to believe you can and will learn, and to intentionally grow and develop from your experience. Your attitude about learning, especially learning from experience, dictates whether you approach it favorably disposed to learn, grow, and develop. Leaders who have a Learning Mindset are open to learning, see opportunities to learn in all aspects of their work life, and tend to learn more than those who are closed to learning. You can choose to approach work, personal life, and feedback with a Learning Mindset, or to go about your day-to-day activities mindlessly. For more information about Learning Mindset, send me a note on the "Contact" page of this website.

Whether you are on the "giving" or the "receiving" side of feedback, you owe it to yourself and your colleagues to master the value available through effective feedback.

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