‘I Don’t Want to Hear It!’ Why Feedback Is So Hard to Accept

Speaker shares tips for making performance conversations more productive

By Dana Wilkie Jun 22, 2016
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Sheila Heen started her speech about learning how to accept feedback with a story about how her mother-in-law came to her home and remarked that the house would be cleaner if it wasn’t for the family dog.

“I looked at her and said, ‘You know, if I wanted my house to be cleaner, the dog is not the first family member to go,’ ” Heen told attendees at the Society for Human Resource Management 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition. “ ‘Let me look at my list. Oh, look! There’s your son, right at the top.’ ”

Heen told this story to illustrate how most people react to feedback about something they should change, do differently or do better—and what HR professionals can do to help managers and their workers learn more about themselves and how they can improve.

Heen, a Harvard Law School professor, spoke June 21 during a Masters Series session based on the title of a book she co-authored, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Viking/Penguin, 2014).

Too often, she said, feedback that involves evaluation is difficult for the “receiver” to accept.

“We should love feedback,” she said. “But the problem is we need to be accepted and respected and loved the way we are now. The very fact of feedback would suggest that the way I am now is not entirely OK. This is one reason why feedback can be among the most painful experiences of our lives.”

Hence, Heen said, most people instantly start looking for reasons particular feedback might be wrong: “They don’t have their facts right. They don’t know what they’re talking about. How they gave [feedback] to me was totally pathetic. They couldn’t give me any specifics.”

But it’s not just the person getting the feedback who’s responsible for changing his or her approach, she said. For instance, many phrases that managers use when giving feedback can be vague—words that may mean something very specific in the manager’s mind but that mean little to the employee. Phrases like “be more proactive,” “be more positive” or “be more strategic.” Or “take initiative,” “show more leadership” or “improve your communication.”

To show attendees how to give and receive feedback so that both parties understand exactly what’s being communicated, Heen had attendees pair up and take turns being the “giver” and the receiver in a work setting. Each giver had a card with an opening line that they read to the receiver, but also background information that explained—only to the giver—why she felt justified in making such a statement. One opening line read “I think you need to work on your time management.”

Each receiver had a card with background information describing what she had been dealing with at work—information that might help explain, for instance, why she didn’t have enough time to get things done.

The duo asked each other questions to get to the bottom of what the giver really meant about time management and what the receiver felt she needed from her manager to better meet expectations. Each giver used a phone to record a video of the receiver as the latter processed the feedback.

“One of the first challenges is to figure out what the giver is trying to tell us,” Heen said. “First, pause. Don’t decide if you agree or disagree. Just try to understand. I can ask questions: Where is this feedback going? If I were to take the advice … what would I do differently?”

The second challenge, she said, is to see one’s self accurately. Asking attendees to view the video recordings of themselves reacting to feedback, she noted that most of us don’t realize how we come across to others: “Facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, patterns of behavior—this is information other people have about us that we don’t have about ourselves.”

That inability to see ourselves as others see us, she said, is the reason why people who are told they’re “aloof” reject the feedback—because they know they’re actually just “shy.”

Aloofness is what others see, Heen explained, while shyness is your own assessment of yourself. “Both are actually true,” she said. “It may be that you’re just shy, but if you come off as aloof, that’s still a problem. So get curious about the gap: ‘What do I have to learn from this?’ ”

Leaders who become better receivers, Heen said, report higher job satisfaction and higher engagement with colleagues. They adapt more quickly to new roles, have richer conversations and eventually become better givers.

“Don’t walk out of this session and go to your colleagues and say, ‘Have any feedback for me?’ ” Heen cautioned. “Instead, ask, ‘What’s one thing I’m doing or failing to do, where you think I’m getting in my own way?’ If you’re not sure what you need to be working on as a leader, who does? Your team. They have a secret list of all the things you do or fail to do … but they won’t tell you what’s on that list unless they’re sure you want to know. Invite that richer conversation. This is what slowly changes the [work] culture and the team dynamic.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM. 

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