As managers, most of us learn how to give feedback – but we almost never learn how to receive it. Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone explain the importance of receiving feedback well regardless of your seniority.

Honest performance conversations don’t happen – at least not as frequently as they should. It is a complaint that crosses industries, spans geographies, runs up and down the hierarchy, and such uses organizations large and small. Candid conversations about performance are avoided, soft pedaled or stumbled through. In fact, according to a 2010 study on the State of Performance Management, a survey of 750 HR professionals by Sibson Consulting and World at Work, 63% of executives believe that the biggest challenge of performance management is managers’ unwillingness to have difficult conversations. And, according to another study by Globoforce (2011), even when managers tackle them with the best of intentions and a solid set of skills, employees are often left feeling resentful or discouraged – 55% of employees believe their review is inaccurate or unfair, and one in four say it is the thing they dread most in their working lives.

You already know the challenges; you live them in your organization. We all do. And our usual approaches do not seem to make much of a dent in the problem. Below are three common mistakes managers make in trying to address the problem and what can be done instead to both dramatically improve the quality of conversations in your organization and accelerate your own learning as a leader.

  1. We teach giving but not receiving

The usual response to the organizational feedback challenge is to teach managers how to give feedback more skilfully – how to frame the conversation, what words to use and how to be persistent when feedback is resisted. That makes sense, and the more skilled the feedback giver is, the better.

But it is still a “push” model of learning and it doesn’t change a fundamental truth: the receiver is the one who decides what they let in, how they make sense of what they hear and whether and how they choose to change. It doesn’t matter how much authority, power or skill the giver has, if the receiver isn’t ready or able to hear the feedback, learning is blocked. In fact, damage may be done in terms of trust, engagement or motivation.

Sharpen your darts all you want – if the dartboard is made of steel, it’s not going to help.

This is not to say that your colleagues are totally impervious to feedback. Taking in negative feedback is something all human beings struggle with. The dilemma is built in: we want to learn and improve, and at the same time, we want to be accepted and respected just the way we are now.

You can’t “train” that dilemma out of people or get around it by using exactly the right words; it will always be with us. But you can teach people to manage the resulting tension more skilfully, to have better two-way conversations about feedback and to drive their own learning.

You can cultivate a “pull” model of learning, where the receiver shares the responsibility for turning any feedback – even poorly given or offer base feedback – into something useful to them.

Here are two examples of skills that receivers can learn. First, we can be taught to “spot labels”. Most feedback is delivered in labels, which convey very little information. Labels like these: “Be

The more skilled the feedback giver is, the better more assertive”. “Work on your people skills”. “Take your performance to the next level”. Each of these could turn out to be a valuable piece of feedback, but, as stated, each could mean almost anything. The mistake receivers make is to assume we know what the giver means and decide to accept or reject the feedback based on the label. Instead, we should reserve judgment until we understand where the feedback is coming from (ask: What did you observe me do that prompted concern? What are you worried about if I continue to do it this way?) and where the feedback is going to (ask: What specifically do you think I should do differently?). Too often we dismiss the feedback label immediately (“I’m plenty assertive!”) or assume the giver means something they didn’t.

When told to be more assertive by his sales manager, one young salesman began pressuring customers to decide ‘right now, today, before you walk out the door’. His manager was horrified. By “more assertive” she meant more animated, more engaged with the customer, more openly enthusiastic and caring. The manager’s intended meaning was the opposite of how the sales person interpreted it.

A second skill: often when we receive feedback we “switchtrack”, which effectively kills the conversation and blocks any learning. What is switchtracking? It’s this: your colleague asks for your help handling a particularly difficult call with an unhappy client. By the end of the call, the client decides to go forward with the next big phase of the project. After hanging up, relieved and ebullient, you receive an email from your colleague saying that you were interrupting others on the conference call and that it came across as rude, even culturally inappropriate. You are floored and indignant, and (with considerable restraint) respond by saying: “Hey, we turned it around. Let’s celebrate instead of taking shots at each other.”

That is a perfectly reasonable thing to say. Maybe you should be celebrating and maybe your colleague’s feedback is stunningly poorly timed. But that is a different topic from the one your colleague raised: whether you were interrupting and what impact that may have had. When you change the topic from their feedback for you to your feedback for them, that’s called switch tracking. The two of you head down divergent tracks, unaware that the other is on a different topic train. The answer is not to ignore your own reactions, or to pretend that you don’t have a problem with your colleague’s lack of appreciation. The answer is to point out that there are two topics – your alleged interrupting and their lack of appreciation for your help – and plan to discuss both. If you don’t, the two of you will continue to talk past each other, the relationship is damaged and learning is defeated.

  1. We conflate evaluation, coaching and appreciation

A second mistake is that leaders, HR and learning professionals, and managers ask too much from our performance management systems or, at least, too much at one time. Broadly, there are three different kinds of feedback: appreciation, coaching and evaluation. Each has its own set of purposes, and we don’t do a good job keeping those three purposes separate and clear when we exchange feedback.

Evaluation rates or ranks people so that the organization can make informed decisions about compensation, promotions and work allocation. Evaluation also helps employees know where they stand and what to expect.

A second kind of feedback is coaching, which is designed to help you improve, to grow your knowledge or capabilities. This is the lifeblood of professional development, of mentoring, of a learning organization.

Finally, appreciation says: “I see you”, “I value what you’re doing and how hard you’re working” and “you matter.” Some want appreciation to be explicit; they need to hear occasional and heartfelt thanks. Some hear it in a pay rise or title change, and still others hear it in the fact that you give them the juicy assignments or consult them about tricky problems. Whatever our language, it’s appreciation that keeps us motivated and encourages us to persist in the face of tough problems and daily challenges.

Too often managers pack all three of these diverse and important purposes into performance reviews. But in this situation, there is too much to talk about and the topics do not fit well together. It is almost impossible to rank, teach and appreciate someone all in the same moment. Especially when the evaluation is a surprise (we are delighted or devastated), their emotional reaction drowns out any coaching on offer. The mind is not in learning mode and they can’t take in appreciation when they’re feeling under-appreciated or unfairly treated.

In organizations and as individuals, we need all three kinds of feedback, but they need to be pulled apart rather than muddled together. Coaching conversations should happen day in and day out, in real time: “Here are a couple things I noticed that would make you more efficient or effective here.” Appreciation is foremost a matter of being awake to the contributions of others. Amid the meetings, deadlines and keystrokes, remember that you and those around you have an array of human needs running alongside whatever it is that the client or customer or boss needs.

And while it is tempting to get rid of the anxiety by getting rid of evaluation altogether, both the organization and the employee need some sense of where they stand in order to guide expectations and decision-making. If we do not provide that, people put their ear to the ground to listen for it in coaching or appreciation: “Are you giving me lots of coaching because I’m not doing well?” Or “I was singled out for appreciation last week, but not this week – does that mean I’m falling behind?” You may or may not need a formal performance review to do so, but letting people know how they are doing against expectations provides the reassurance they need to focus on the coaching and appreciation that helps them grow.

  1. Our superstar mythology undersells the role of learning

By and large, we like our superstars to have been born that way: Francisco in sales was born to sell – the smile, the intuition, the mix of humility and confidence, the exquisite timing. You can’t learn that, can you? Superstars are different, touched by a divine grace that makes them worthy of our adulation and of the rewards they reap.

Well, yes and no. Some people show up in the world with particular gifts, it’s true. Not everyone is going to win Wimbledon.

But it turns out that these superstars have a secret. While others attribute their success to talent or skill at playing the political game, what is often true is that they are particularly good at learning, at eliciting and building on feedback. They ask to sit in on the client meeting to better understand client needs and also get to watch those at the next level and in the next role. They are alert to what they could have improved and take note of what their peers are doing well. They are so open and so committed to doing it better that they quickly become the ‘go to’ person for the most complicated projects and most visible campaigns.

No matter what level we’re at, we all improve with feedback. And it may especially be true for those with the most natural talent. Track down anyone who is great at what they do and ask them about a time they received tough, honest feedback that had an impact on them. They will tell you why they resisted at first and how they grappled to make sense of it – and why learning from it has made all the difference.

So find those learning stories in your organization – not the pat stories of easy learning, but the tough ones that involved doubt and vulnerability – and make sure everyone who works with you can recite them backwards and forwards. Every organization has myths, and it’s the myths of the organization that tell you what’s really valued.

Take advantage

This is why we think that the most valuable thing that leaders can do isn’t to switch up their performance management system one more time, or even learn to be better givers. It’s to learn to be better receivers themselves. Not only will you accelerate your own learning curve as a leader, but you’ll demonstrate what is valued and what you expect from your team. You’ll show others what it looks like to get good at receiving.

And you also communicate that nobody should be sitting around waiting for the perfect mentor to show up, or the perfect stretch project to arrive. Your life is mostly populated by everyone and everything else – bosses who don’t have time for you, projects that are more of a headache than a hand up. By getting better at driving your own learning, you can start to see these as the opportunities they are – it’s the project nobody wants, done well, that sometimes is most valued in its success. And it’s the overhand, unskilled feedback you get that may still contain just what you need to learn and grow.

The good news in all of this is that receiving feedback well is a skill – it may be fraught, but it can be taught. And as leaders and decision-makers we should be the first to sign up. Those under us take their cues from our behaviour; if we seek out feedback and demonstrate openness to learning, this signals what you value and what you expect from those around you.

Particularly for senior leaders, asking for feedback from those below you is tricky. They are reluctant to jeopardize their relationship with you. So don’t ask: “Do you have any feedback for me?” The question is too broad, and too overwhelming, and it’s not clear how honest you want your colleague to be. Instead, ask: “What’s one thing you see me doing, or failing to do, that’s getting in my own way?” Or you can ask: “What’s one thing I could change that would make a difference to you?” In either case, it’s clearer that you want them to be honest and it’s an easy, discrete question to answer. They can name the latest thing that has annoyed them or the most important on their list. Either way, you get some input that you can work with.

And you start to see that the biggest variable in your own learning isn’t the quality of your HR department, your performance management system, or even the skill of your colleagues as givers of feedback.

The biggest variable is you.