When we receive negative feedback, our bodies react instinctively. Physiologically, our shoulders tense up and our breath becomes more shallow. What’s worse is that, according to studies on how we respond to criticism, our ego becomes so defensive in these moments that it starts to censor the information we take in and process. This means that we actually start to shut down when we are receiving negative feedback. However, hearing negative feedback is critical to our ability to improve our performance.
In a recent episode of his podcast WorkLife, organizational psychologist Adam Grant discusses the art and science of giving and receiving negative feedback with leaders and coaches who have established and experienced cultures of extreme feedback. For example, Silicon Valley-based executive coach Kim Scott believes that the trick to giving negative feedback is to come at it with the intention to really help someone improve. Eileen Murray, co-CEO at Bridgewater Associates, an organization that promotes “radical candor,” compares negative feedback to tough love, like what you would give to or receive from a family member.
Even if you know that negative feedback helps you improve, it can be hard to hear it. So how do we get past that instinctual "fight or flight" response in order to actually process the feedback and improve on it?
According to Grant, the secret is in the “second score.” If we consider the first score to be the piece of negative feedback we receive (for example, that we didn’t lead a meeting effectively), the second score focuses on the way we take the feedback.
“Every time I get feedback, I rate myself on how well I took the feedback,” he explains. “That’s a habit we can all develop. When someone gives you feedback, they’ve already evaluated you. So it helps to remind yourself that the main thing they’re judging now is whether you’re open or defensive.”
Start to invite feedback, even when you know it might be negative, and then focus on the way you respond. Ask your feedback provider to rate your response: Were you open or were you defensive? Internalize their response. Grant’s most important piece of advice? Always respond by thanking them.
—Rohini Venkatraman is a business designer at IDEO, a “global idea and innovation company.” She has a background in psychology and product management, and is experienced in applying user-centered design and lean methodologies to unsolved problems. She wrote this column for Inc.com.