There’s an odd paradox at play when it comes to receiving feedback about our work. On the one hand, most of us need — and even crave — to know how our work is being received. One recent study found that 82 percent of employees want feedback, regardless of whether it is positive or negative; and 65 percnet want more feedback than they’re currently receiving. And the desire for external validation of our professional worth is particularly strong among millennials in the workforce.
At the same time, our brains are hardwired to perceive critical feedback as a kind of threat, sending us into fight-or-flight mode. We can become defensive when colleagues or supervisors offer what they intend as constructive criticism, leading us to either shoot back or shut down.
When it comes to feedback: We want it but we can’t handle it.
Here are three simple tips to get the feedback you need without the unwanted and unnecessary anxiety.
First, we need to reframe how we think about critical feedback. “Critical” doesn’t have to mean a critique; critical can also mean crucial, essential. It can take a good bit of the sting out of critical feedback when we receive it as a crucial step in making a project better instead of perceiving it as an attack on our work — or, even worse, on our character.
Perhaps some of the problem comes from never graduating beyond the kind of feedback we got in school: The red ink on our exams and papers signaled the number of errors we made and the amount of points the teacher or professor took off from what would have otherwise been perfect. These red marks were then permanently recorded and delivered to us in the form of a grade. Period. End of story.
But in a professional setting, it’s rarely so black-and-white. Work tends to be more collaborative. Deliverables tend to be more fluid. At least in the early stages of a project, there is time to fold feedback into the design process in order to create a better final product.
Evolutionary biology offers a simple lesson regarding the evolution of homo sapiens: bigger brains correlate to increased cognitive capacity (note that this is on average for a species, not for an individual or group). Rather than wait around another 2 million years to evolve our brains as a species, the quickest way to double the brainpower we have for a project is to get another brain thinking about it alongside us. Feedback from multiple perspectives is crucial to creating more thoughtful, intelligent work that will have broader appeal and greater staying power.
For me, I’ve been working for the past eight months on a written piece that will serve to introduce my organization’s constituents to what we do and why. I’ve lost track of how many rounds of feedback the piece has gone through and how many different people from within and outside my organization have weighed in. It has been humbling to reopen the piece each time instead of calling it “finished,” but the piece is far clearer and richer with each new person’s expertise added to it.
Ask for it
Another way to come off the defensive when it comes to critical feedback is to seek it out. Being proactive in soliciting feedback can be especially productive for those of us who feel thrown off guard by receiving uninvited comments about our work.
Be specific, though, in asking for feedback. “What do you think about this report I’ve been working for months on?” isn’t a very good opening line. The other person may wonder if we’re fishing for a compliment. Or it might come off as passive-aggressive, with the subtext: “My blood, sweat, and tears are baked into this thing. Don’t test me.”
Instead, clarify what it is that you want to know about the project and then point the other person’s attention in that direction. If you want feedback on grammar and syntax but not on content, for example, make that clear for your colleague-turned-editor. If the other person is unfamiliar with the project, take advantage of the opportunity to explain the rationale and methodology for a project, as this will also provide the necessary context for the other person to evaluate the project. Offer a concrete timeline by which you need the feedback and state the form in which you’d hope for the feedback — meeting in person, by email, etc.
If you’re nervous about asking others to give you their time to review your work, be explicit about why you wanted their help in particular. Expressing confidence in some aspect of their expertise will foster more goodwill for the project, and it communicates that you genuinely want their honest feedback, not just praise.
One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in the past when receiving feedback, particularly in live Q&A following a presentation I’ve given, is not thanking the person who raised the question or concern. This isn’t just about being polite, and it’s certainly not about just looking polite. Saying thanks is a simple, concrete discipline that helps both the feedback-giver and receiver to stay out of fight-or-flight mode and keep focused on the heart of what feedback is about: making our work better. Questions aren’t barbs coming at us from all sides. Questions present opportunities to clarify what we mean to communicate and help us add nuance where it was initially lacking.
It’s an odd climate we live in where we’re afraid to offer anything other than affirmations to someone’s face, while online we are uninhibited in doling out negativity. Voicing our appreciation when someone offers sincere feedback is an important step in creating a more creative and collaborative workplace culture where we can be even more proud of the work we produce — and where we can be proud of playing a part in the success of those around us.