Thanks for the Feedback
- Douglas Stone, Sheila Heen
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Dweck reports that those with growth mindsets are “amazingly accurate” in gauging their current abilities, while people with fixed mindsets are “terrible” at estimating their own proficiencies.
Coaching is aimed at trying to help someone learn, grow, or change. The focus is on helping the person improve, whether it involves a skill, an idea, knowledge, a particular practice, or that person’s appearance or personality.
Evaluation tells you where you stand. It’s an assessment, ranking, or rating.
We need coaching to accelerate learning, to focus our time and energy where it really matters, and to keep our relationships healthy and functioning. And we need appreciation if all the sweat and tears we put into our jobs and our relationships are going to feel worthwhile.
It is smart to avoid evaluation when your purpose is coaching. Don’t say, “You’re no good,” when what you really mean to say is “Here’s how to get better.”
One of the key challenges of feedback conversations is that wires often get crossed. There are two ways this happens. First, I might want a different type of feedback from the type you gave me—for example, I was looking for appreciation, but you gave me evaluation. Second, you may have intended to give me one kind of feedback, but I interpreted it incorrectly—for example, you sought to give me coaching, but I heard it as evaluation.
During the conversation, check in periodically: “I’m intending to give you coaching. Is that how you’re hearing it? From your point of view, is that what you need?” The receiver may respond that it would be nice to know if she’s doing anything right—a signal that she’s craving some appreciation and maybe a bit of positive evaluation.
Feedback includes any information you get about yourself. In the broadest sense, it’s how we learn about ourselves from our experiences and from other people—how we learn from life.
The term “feed-back” was coined in the 1860s during the Industrial Revolution to describe the way that outputs of energy, momentum, or signals are returned to their point of origin in a mechanical system.
In addition to our desire to learn and improve, we long for something else that is fundamental: to be loved, accepted, and respected just as we are. And the very fact of feedback suggests that how we are is not quite okay. So we bristle: Why can’t you accept me for who I am and how I am? Why are there always more adjustments, more upgrades? Why is it so hard for you to understand me? Hey boss, hey team. Hey wife, hey Dad. Here I am. This is me. Receiving feedback sits at the intersection of these two needs—our drive to learn and our longing for acceptance.
In the workplace, treating feedback not just as something to be endured, but something to be actively sought, can have a profound impact. Feedback-seeking behavior—as it’s called in the research literature—has been linked to higher job satisfaction, greater creativity on the job, faster adaptation in a new organization or role, and lower turnover. And seeking out negative feedback is associated with higher performance ratings.
Trying to ignore a triggered reaction without first identifying its cause is like dealing with a fire by disconnecting the smoke alarm. So triggers are obstacles, but they aren’t only obstacles. Triggers are also information—a kind of map—that can help us locate the source of the trouble.
Truth Triggers are set off by the substance of the feedback itself—it’s somehow off, unhelpful, or simply untrue.
Relationship Triggers are tripped by the particular person who is giving us this gift of feedback.
Identity Triggers focus neither on the feedback nor on the person offering it. Identity triggers are all about us. Whether the feedback is right or wrong, wise or witless, something about it has caused our identity—our sense of who we are—to come undone.
Broadly, feedback comes in three forms: appreciation (thanks), coaching (here’s a better way to do it), and evaluation (here’s where you stand). Often the receiver wants or hears one kind of feedback, while the giver actually means another.
Managing truth triggers is not about pretending there’s something to learn, or saying you think it’s right if you think it’s wrong. It’s about recognizing that it’s always more complicated than it appears and working hard to first understand. And even if you decide that 90 percent of the feedback is off target, that last golden 10 percent might be just the insight you need to grow.
But often, feedback is not only happening in the context of a relationship; it’s created by the relationship itself. Embedded in the hurly-burly of every relationship is a unique pairing of sensitivities, preferences, and personalities. It is the nature of our particular pairing—rather than either of us individually—that creates friction.
when we use the word “feedback,” we may be referring to any of three different kinds of information: appreciation, coaching, and evaluation.
Appreciation is fundamentally about relationship and human connection. At a literal level it says, “thanks.” But appreciation also conveys, “I see you,” “I know how hard you’ve been working,” and “You matter to me.”
Being seen, feeling understood by others, matters deeply. As children these needs are right on the surface as we call across the playground, “Hey, Mom! Mom! Mom! Watch this!” If, as adults, we learn not to pester quite so obviously, we never outgrow the need to hear someone say, “Wow, look at you!” And we never outgrow the need for those flashes of acknowledgment that say, “Yes, I see you. I ‘get’ you. You matter.”
When people complain that they don’t get enough feedback at work, they often mean that they wonder whether anyone notices or cares how hard they’re working.
If your organization has formal feedback conversations at yearly or semiyearly intervals (where, for example, supervisor and supervisee develop objectives or a learning plan for the coming year, with specific skills and outcomes targeted), the evaluation conversation and the coaching conversation should be separated by at least days, and probably longer.
This “what was heard” versus “what was meant” coaching mismatch is surprisingly common:
If we strip back the label, we find that feedback has both a past and a future. There’s a looking-back component (“here’s what I noticed”), and a looking-forward component (“here’s what you need to do”). The usual feedback labels don’t tell us much in either direction. So to clarify the feedback under the label we need to “be specific” about two things: (1) where the feedback is coming from, and (2) where the feedback is going.
The feedback you get is rooted in the observations of your giver—whatever they’ve seen, felt, heard, smelled, touched, tasted, remembered, or read that is relevant. In the academic literature this is called their “data,” although data in this context goes beyond mere facts and figures. Data can include anything directly observed: someone’s behavior, statements, tone, clothes, work product, year-to-date revenue, socks on the floor, rumors around the office.
The process of moving from data to interpretation happens in the blink of an eye and is largely unconscious.
we can test whether advice is clear by asking this: If you do want to follow the advice, would you know how to do so?
Working to first understand their views doesn’t mean we pretend we don’t have life experiences or opinions. Instead, we need to understand their views even as we’re aware of our own. And that’s almost impossible to do unless we make a key shift—away from that’s wrong and toward tell me more: Let’s figure out why we see this differently. If the reason we see a particular piece of feedback differently isn’t simply that one of us is wrong, then what is the reason? There are two: We have different data, and we interpret that data differently.
The “fix” is to separate intentions from impacts when feedback is discussed. When Annabelle gets the feedback that she’s difficult, she insists that she’s not difficult, saying in essence, “I have positive intentions and therefore positive impacts.” But she doesn’t actually realize what impacts she’s having. Instead, she should talk about intentions and impacts separately: “I’ve been working hard to be more patient [arrow 2, my intentions]. And yet it sounds like that’s not the impact I’m having [arrow 4]. That’s upsetting. Let’s figure out why.” Feedback givers also confuse impacts and intentions. Their feedback is packed with assumed intentions. Instead of saying, “You try to steal credit for other people’s ideas” (which includes a description of intentions), they should share the impact the behavior had on them: “I was upset and confused when you said it was your idea. I felt I deserved the credit for that idea.”
“What do you see me doing, or failing to do, that is getting in my own way?” This question is more specific about the honesty you desire as well as your interest in the impact you have on others.
We are often more triggered by the person giving us feedback than by the feedback itself. In fact, relationship triggers may be the most common derailers of feedback conversations.
our own behavior is largely invisible to us.
When something goes wrong and I am part of it, I will tend to attribute my actions to the situation; you will tend to attribute my actions to my character.10
We judge ourselves by our intentions (arrow 2), while others judge us by our impacts (arrow
Intentions are rarely explicitly stated, and even when they are, we may or may not believe them. You say you are “just trying to help,” but it sure seems as if you are “just trying to get me fired.” The challenge here, as we’ve seen, is that intentions are invisible. They are locked up in the giver’s head, where even the giver may not be fully aware of them. And this makes intentions tricky. We care deeply about others’ intentions but we simply can’t know them.
We tend to like people who like us and who are like us.3 So if you live mostly without friction with your mate or work well with a colleague, chances are you have similar styles, assumptions, and habits. Your preferences and expectations may not be identical, but the two of you fall into an easy complementariness. Because of this ease, you are often at your best and most productive with them. They can’t help you with your sharpest edges because they don’t see those edges.
Want to fast-track your growth? Go directly to the people you have the hardest time with. Ask them what you’re doing that’s exacerbating the situation.
The first type of relationship trigger derives from what we think about the feedback giver. The second type comes from how we feel treated by them. Whether professional or personal, casual or intimate, we expect many things from our relationships. Among these there are three key relationship interests that commonly get snagged on the brambles of feedback: our needs for appreciation, autonomy, and acceptance.
My autonomy map and your autonomy map will occasionally clash, raising questions about who gets to decide. That’s a negotiation, and an important set of conversations to have, clearly and explicitly.
We can have an explicit conversation about the appropriate boundaries of autonomy instead of a pointless argument about whether your suggested grammatical changes to my e-mail make sense.
The givers want us to change in some way. We want to know that it’s okay if we don’t.
There are three moves that can help us manage relationship triggers and avoid switchtracking. First, we need to be able to spot the two topics on the table (the original feedback and the relationship concern). Next, we need to give each topic its own conversation track (and get both people on the same track at the same time). Third, we need to help givers be clearer about their original feedback, especially when the feedback itself relates to the relationship.
A pedestrian pounds on our car as we sit at a red light. He shouts: “You’re in the crosswalk!” We honk and shout: “Don’t you dare pound on my car!”
in relationships, “This is how you are” really means “This is how you are in relationship to how I am.” It’s the combination—the intersection of our differences—that is often causing the problem.
A role is like an ice cube tray into which you pour your personality. What you pour in matters, but so does the shape of the tray.
One important role pattern is called “accidental adversaries.”3 If two people bump into each other enough and cause each other enough frustration, each will begin considering the other an “adversary.” Each attributes the problem to the personality and questionable intentions of the other. But often the true culprit is the structure of the roles they are in, which are (accidentally) creating chronic conflict.
Sometimes role clashes arise not from confusion but from clarity. The tension is embedded in the organizational structure itself. Compliance officers and traders at a bank will often be in conflict, not just because of rogue traders or overly cautious compliance officers, but because the very nature of their roles puts them at odds. Other common examples are Sales and Legal, surgeons and anesthesiologists, architects and engineers, and HR and everyone.
The template for signposting is this: “I see two related but separate topics for us to discuss. They are both important. Let’s discuss each topic fully but separately, giving each topic its own track. After we’ve finished discussing the first topic, we’ll swing back around and discuss the second one.” Of course normal people don’t talk this way, and signposting isn’t a natural move for most of us. It requires us to step outside the conversation and look in on it. In fact, it’s that absence of flow that is one of the reasons it’s so helpful. It breaks the normal reactive conversation pattern by being hyper-explicit about what’s going on. Use your own words, but be clear. Which topic should you discuss first? There are two factors to consider. First, an edge should be given to the original feedback. That’s what the other person wanted to discuss, and all things being equal, you’re better off starting with their topic. But the second factor to take into account is emotion. If your relationship trigger reaction is so strong that it gets in the way of your being able to take in what they are saying, then you should say so and propose that your topic be discussed first. This will help you hear their topic, and at the end of the day, that’s what they care about most.
when you receive coaching, a question to ask yourself is this: Is this about helping me grow and improve, or is this the giver’s way of raising an important relationship issue that has been upsetting them?
Pay attention to your own silent switchtracking reaction to others’ feedback: I’m not the problem! or I could get you better numbers if you didn’t wait until the last minute to ask for them or I’m only crabby because you’re always late. These knee-jerk “not my fault!” thoughts are clues that stepping back to understand the interaction behind the feedback will be helpful.
once we identify the contours of a system, we can often make useful changes that don’t require that people change their personalities. We can shift their roles, change the processes we use, or even change the environment.
Feedback can be threatening because it prompts questions about the most challenging relationship you have: your relationship with yourself. Are you a good person? Do you deserve your own respect? Can you live with yourself? Forgive yourself?
for simplicity’s sake, we can say that your “reaction” to feedback can be thought of as containing three key variables: Baseline, Swing, and Sustain or Recovery.
“Baseline” refers to the default state of well-being or contentment toward which you gravitate in the wake of good or bad events in your life. “Swing” refers to how far up or down you move from your baseline when you receive feedback. Some of us have extreme reactions to feedback; we swing wide. Others remain on an even keel even in the face of disquieting news. “Sustain and Recovery” refers to duration, how long your ups and downs last.
Twin studies have led to estimates that about 50 percent of the variance among people in their average levels of happiness can be explained by differences in their genes rather than in their life experiences.
people who have higher happiness baselines are more likely to respond positively to positive feedback than people with lower self-reported well-being. And people with lower general satisfaction respond more strongly to negative information.
Research suggests a 50-40-10 formula for happiness: About 50 percent of our happiness is wired in. Another 40 percent can be attributed to how we interpret and respond to what happens to us, and 10 percent is driven by our circumstances—where we live and with whom, where we work and with whom, the state of our health, and so forth.
If our stories are a result of our feelings plus our thoughts, then we can change our stories by working to change either our feelings or our thoughts.
What do I feel? What’s the story I’m telling (and inside that story, what’s the threat)? What’s the actual feedback?
Asking, what is this feedback not about? gives you a structured way of staying balanced.
when in the grip of upsetting feedback, we often fail to distinguish between consequences that will happen and consequences that might happen.
Our ability to metabolize challenging feedback is driven by the particular way we tell our identity story. Some people tell their identity story in ways that cause their identity to be brittle, while others tell their identity story in ways that allow it to be robust. Those in the latter group are predisposed to treat feedback not as a threat to who they are, but as a core aspect of who they are.
In another study, Dweck and colleagues had fifth graders work on an easy puzzle. Upon successful completion, half the children were told: “Wow, you’re really smart!” The other half were told: “Wow, you worked hard at that puzzle!” Then both groups were asked what they would like to do next: a harder puzzle or an easier one. Guess which group opted for the challenge? You guessed it. One thing to learn from this study is that praising our kids for their intelligence is, surprisingly, counterproductive to their learning. We’re better off extolling their effort if we’re hoping to encourage them to take on new challenges.
While identity is easily triggered by evaluation, it is far less threatened by coaching.
As feedback conversations get more emotional or the stakes grow higher, it gets easier to hear evaluation, and tougher to hear the coaching.
As we figure out how to hear evaluation, it’s helpful to break evaluation itself down into three constituent parts: assessment, consequences, and judgment.
Keep this front and center: No matter what growing you have to do, and regardless of how right (or not) the feedback may be, if the person giving you the feedback is not listening to you and doesn’t care about its impact on you, something is wrong.
A warning is a good-faith attempt to explain possible legitimate consequences (“If you’re late to dinner, the spaghetti will be cold”), whereas the purpose of a threat is to manufacture consequences that will induce fear (“If you’re late to dinner, I will throw the spaghetti at you”).
The biggest mistake we make when trying to create boundaries is that we assume other people understand what’s going on with us. Surely they know we’re overloaded or unhappy or struggling, and that their feedback is making things worse. But often they don’t. We may not have told them, or if we have, we were indirect or unclear or they just weren’t listening.
Letting givers know what they can help you with may be the incentive they need to cut down on the advice you don’t want to hear about.
In setting up boundaries, you want to reject feedback clearly and firmly, while at the same time affirming the relationship and showing that you appreciate the intention. The temptation is to link these two thoughts with the word “but.” Hunyee to her mother: “I love seeing you, but if you’re going to come to my house you need to stop criticizing every single thing.” “But” suggests a contradiction between the two thoughts. The first part would be true, but for the second. You love seeing me but what? “But you criticize me too much.” So therefore you don’t actually love seeing me.
Using “and” to describe our feelings isn’t just about word choice. It gets at a deeper truth about our thoughts and feelings: They are often complex and sometimes confused.
being able to establish limits on the feedback you get is crucial to your well-being and the health of your relationships.
You need to make your own mistakes and find your own learning curve. Sometimes that means you need to shut out the critics for a while so you can discover who you are and how you are going to grow.
“I’ve been afraid to talk to you about this and it’s important to me to be honest with you.” “I’ve decided to major in music and I know this makes you worry about my future.” “I’m also very fearful of the struggle I may face and I need to try.” “I know this is hard for you and I hope you will still be supportive of me.” He
So when setting boundaries, be specific about three things: The Request. What, exactly, are you asking of them? Are you putting a particular topic off limits (my new spouse, my new weight), or a behavior (my ADHD, my football watching)? If they need examples of what you’re talking about, describe them as you recall them, along with their effect on you. The Time Frame. How long is the boundary likely to be in place? Do you need time to sort things out for yourself, to adjust your self-image, to take care of other priorities first, to find your feet as a new stepparent or new leader? Let them know if the boundary is time limited, and if not, how they might check in with you about it without violating the boundary. (“Can I ask how things are going with that thing I’m not supposed to mention?”) Their Assent. Don’t assume that they understand you or agree. Instead, ask. When they say, “Yes, I will honor your request,” it’s not just about you anymore. They’re making a commitment, and that enlists their identity and reputation in living up to their promise.
Broadly, feedback conversations are made up of three parts: Open: A critical piece, oddly often skipped when we jump right in without getting aligned: What is the purpose of the conversation? What kind of feedback would I like, and what kind is my giver trying to give? Is the feedback negotiable or final, a friendly suggestion or a command? Body: A two-way exchange of information, requiring you to master four main skills: listening, asserting, managing the conversation process, and problem solving. Close: Here we clarify commitments, action steps, benchmarks, procedural contracts, and follow-up.
Surprisingly, interrupting periodically (to ensure that you understand the giver, rather than to assert your contrasting view) can be a sign that you are listening well.6 So jump in: “Before you go further, can you just say more about what you mean by ‘unprofessional’? I want to be sure I’m tracking what you’re describing. . . .” Clarifying as you go can be helpful to both of you.
You aren’t seeking to persuade the giver that you are right. You’re not trying to replace their truth with your truth. Instead, you’re adding what’s “left out.” And what’s most often left out is your data, your interpretations, and your feelings. As long as you’ve made that shift, you can assert anything that’s important to you.
When you’re at an impasse—when what a giver suggests is difficult for you or even unacceptable—ask about the underlying interests behind the suggestion.
Don’t say, “I’d like some feedback.” That’s too vague. Instead say: “What’s one thing I could work on?” Or, as we discuss in chapter 4, you can sharpen it by asking: “What’s one thing you see me doing, or failing to do, that’s getting in my own way?”
One last way to seek out one change that could have a big impact is to ask: “What’s one thing I could change that would make a difference to you?”