The Three Enemies of Feedback

Why is receiving feedback so hard and what can we do about it?

Receiving critical feedback is one of the most difficult things about working with others. But why is it so dang hard? And how can we get better at both receiving feedback and learning from it?

One thing to keep in mind is that half the battle comes before a tough message is ever shared. Those who learn best from critical feedback have often made a life decision to learn from criticism and exhibit a growth mindset.

Individuals with a growth mindset believe talent is malleable. They believe we can develop intelligence and ability through effort and practice. A growth mindset is important because it forces us to acknowledge that we are a work in progress. We need input for growth.

There are three enemies preventing us from receiving feedback. Let’s call them the three P’s: Person, Personal, and Packaging.

Our brains are highly critical of who is sharing a message with us. We may discount a message that’s coming from a co-worker (especially one whom we think is “inexperienced,” “young,” “old,” “dumb,” “insert your own judgmental adjective here”), yet make an immediate behavior change when the same message comes from a boss or someone we respect.

We form snap judgments of people, and unfortunately, those snap judgments linger in our heads much longer than they should. These impressions are often inaccurate or incomplete, at the very least, but the opinions influence the way we process messages from that person.

We need to remember everyone offers a unique perspective that can shed light on how we are being perceived by others. We shouldn’t let our biases about someone get in the way of receiving a message we need to hear.

When we hear feedback, our brains often jump to a conclusion regarding what that feedback means about us as individuals. We assume the feedback speaks to our identity, when in fact it refers only to a specific action/inaction of ours that could have been handled better.

Here are a few examples of what this looks like:

What the speaker says:

“You haven’t completed as much this week as I expected you would. Do you need some additional training on how to do this work?”

What we hear:
“I’m a terrible employee, and I’m going to lose my job.”

What the speaker says:

“When you said _____ in the meeting, I felt disrespected. You could have been more kind in sharing your opinion.”

What we hear:

“I am a complete jerk.”

What the speaker says:
“I’ve been feeling distant from you lately. It seems like you keep pushing me away.”

What we hear:

“I am a lousy boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse/friend and this relationship is not going to work.”

See how easily this can happen? Our brains are skillful at crafting immediate, compelling narratives of who we are and how we should feel about ourselves based on just a few sentences from someone.

The problem is that as soon as we begin questioning our identity, our emotional barricades go up. We tend to miss out on the message and not learn the lesson we’re supposed to learn from that situation.

The key is to recognize that feedback almost always refers to a specific behavior rather than our personal identity. Once we make that important mental shift, we begin to truly hear what others are saying.

Another personal impediment to accepting feedback is our ego. Pride blocks our ability to process and fix mistakes.

Counterintuitively, the best people in any given field often recognize they have the most to learn. In the words of John Archibald Wheeler, “As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.” High performers often see feedback as valuable data to be marshaled into personal improvement and new behavior.

An old boss of mine named Harry had a remarkable ability to give feedback in a way that challenged me, but also reminded me he was my biggest fan and had complete confidence in my abilities.

Harry could give me the hardest, most challenging feedback, yet I would walk out of his office with a bounce in my step, knowing I could improve in that area with his help. He was on my side and we were fighting the battle together. I would have done anything for Harry.

Unfortunately, most people aren’t Harry. In fact, most of our learning will come from people who are terrible at giving feedback.

It would be easy to discount every message that is “packaged” poorly, but doing so would lead to stagnancy rather than growth. We cannot control the way others give us feedback, but we can absolutely control the way we respond to that feedback.

Maybe the person giving the feedback was shouting, crying, swearing, or misinformed. But what did they say? Was there a nugget of truth buried deep in the message?

Even if 90 percent of the message is off-base, almost every message contains a golden 10 percent we need to hear. As soon as we orient our minds to search for these nuggets of truth, our personal development skyrockets.

Learning from feedback demands we make a life decision to be continuous learners who prioritize the truth over fuzzy feelings and sugar-coated messages. Personal growth requires the ability to learn from everyone in every situation.

To learn, we must ward off the three P’s (Person, Personal, and Packaging) that cloud our judgment and prevent personal development.

Bobby is a Business Analyst on Gravity’s Finance team. Bobby’s passion for putting people over profit led him to find Gravity and move to Seattle to accept a job with the company. Bobby is the creator of the Business Book Reviewer website, a blog that offers book recommendations for readers interested in personal development.

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