The seven deadly sins of receiving feedback

by Jul 15, 2021Feedback0 comments

Are you a deflector, blamer, justifier or all of the above?

It’s that time of year again when many of us are sitting down for performance reviews. This is usually the time when Learning and Development people like us start banging on about how to give feedback.

But I want to talk about how to receive feedback – because what’s the point of a leader giving feedback if you are armoured up like Iron Man? Your leader is not getting through that suit any time soon, no matter how tough and titanium their feedback bullets are.

So, what’s the best way to receive feedback? How do you take off the suit and show up with just the right amount of openness? Well, let’s think about some of the typical knee-jerk reactions people have when they get feedback – especially the candid kind.

The most common ones we see working with different businesses are:

1. Deflecting
This is a clever tactic. The stuff of feedback-avoider champions; a strategy we see often. It’s about trying to shift the focus of the feedback somewhere else, onto something or someone different. If you’re getting feedback about how you show up in a meeting, immediately you draw attention to how you’re not clear on the meeting’s expectations and that the agenda doesn’t go out early enough for you to feel prepared. Instead of being the person who doesn’t add value, you’ve turned yourself into a victim of poor planning. You don’t have to level up and your leader now looks like the village idiot – job done!

2. The empty yes
This one’s super sly. It’s all about the head nodding and saying ‘mmm’ in response to feedback, making sure the leader sees just how agreeable you are. You make all kinds of promises and sweet replies along the lines of ‘yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir’ but those promises will quickly evaporate once you leave that room. You know it, and deep down your leader knows it, but they want to believe in you so desperately, they let it go. This is what you’ve been counting on – you know there’s nowhere for the conversation to go once you’ve charmed them into submission. Brilliant!

3. Stonewalling
This one’s brutal, even if it doesn’t say much at all. The guard is up and the cold, hard silence means the feedback can’t come anywhere near you – you’re a fortress. And the leader who’s giving you this feedback can damn well suffer as their words reverberate off your steely walls. Eventually your leader – who is really just trying to free you from your feedback-avoiding fortress – will give up. Well, that’s the plan anyway. If you can be silent and steely for long enough, they’ll leave you alone and you can go back to whatever it was you were doing – safe, secure and never having to stretch. Nice plan.

4. Profusely apologising
This one’s great when your leader has just the right amount of misplaced empathy, so you can tug endearingly at their heartstrings. ‘I’m sorry…’, ‘I need help…’, ‘I’m just so…’ might be how you work your magic to wheedle your way out of the feedback conversation. You’ll do anything to return to your cushy desk chair, secretly pleased that you’ve exploited that soft spot your leader has for you. Maybe part of you is a bit sorry but you’re not sorry enough to really want to change. No, that would require way too much work and well, you’ll still get paid anyway, so, yeah…

5. Defensiveness
This one is best friends with ‘justifying’. These two show up together as the dynamic duo – ready to take down any leader. And they’re probably the loudest and most dramatic of the lot. They just love getting huffy and puffy – running your leader round and round in circles, so they start questioning everything and doubting the soundness of their feedback rationale. With this strategy, nothing will stick to you. Nothing. You’re Teflon. When you’ve got ‘defensiveness’ and ‘justifying’ on your side, you’ll have an answer for EVERYTHING and you won’t have to change for ANYBODY. Perfect!

6. Blaming
Blame is a cycle. A cycle you get stuck in, and one where you’re 100% determined to take your leader down with you. You drown them in false perspectives and stories about other people’s under-performance – blaming everyone from the recently-employed graduate to the window cleaner to Alexa’s inability to understand simple instructions. Maybe some of what you say is true, but you ham it up to shift the focus off you (and you’re just hoping your leader isn’t smart enough to notice). All you can see is the ego-crushing that’s coming your way and you’ll do anything to save face. Anything. Even throw your work bestie under the bus. Wow.

7. Frontline assault
This one gets pulled out when the feedback really hits a sore spot. All of a sudden the amygdala is in full hijack, your protective instincts kick in, and you’ll do anything to shut that shit down. You might even morph into full Hulk – where chest expanding, table smacking, and voice raising do their best to stop feedback in its tracks. Probably the least acceptable of the feedback-avoiding strategies and one that we don’t often see (in favour of more passive-aggressive strategies that are more likely to go undetected). This style will usually do the trick though, as it often leaves your leader too put-off, gobsmacked, or startled to continue. You know how to make sure that NOBODY, that’s right, NOBODY comes anywhere near you (except maybe HR)…

So, what’s the moral of this story?

You’ve probably recognised yourself in at least one of these seven deadly sins, right? We’ve all been there – we are human after all and receiving feedback can be super cringey and confronting. But what if you tried something different next time?

  • What if you didn’t blindly react and instead stayed present and listened?
  • What if you looked at feedback as a tough, yet valuable learning opportunity?
  • What if you took a breath and accepted the discomfort, knowing that it will pass?
  • What if you asked questions and explored options for doing things differently?
  • What if you thanked your leader for taking the time to support your growth?

Surely this approach has got to be better than armouring up, declaring yourself a ‘feedback-free zone’, or hitting back with everything you’ve got?

So, the next time you are in your performance review or getting some feedback, try something different and see how you feel when you leave the room. It might take a few attempts to get it right, but once you’ve figured out the art of receiving feedback, you’ll wonder why you wasted so much time and energy avoiding it.

Join the conversation and share your thoughts via our LinkedIn or Instagram.

By Lee Roulston, Thinka Co-founder (and mostly reformed feedback-avoider)