So you mustered up the courage, asked for feedback – and you got it. Now what?
When you’re in the moment, getting notes from your boss, mentor, or peer, you’re taking on a lot of information; not only that, but you’re working on understanding what it all means, and how it will all affect you. We don’t all shine in that moment, and all too often come out of the meeting with the thought of “Wait…what?”
If you’ve taken the time and asked someone else to take the time to give you feedback, you want it to mean something. So how can you take a critique and make it work for you?
Check Your Filters
I am one of those people that don’t pick up on subtleties. In social situations, I frequently put my foot in my mouth saying exactly what I think in a blunt, and sometimes embarrassing way. So when my friend Jan shared a link to an article on communication skills and filters it made so much sense to me.
In the article the author breaks down two types of personal filters in this way – some people have “outbound” filters, through which they run ideas before they say them out loud; others have “inbound” filters, which they use to interpret the words other people say to them. I have had to develop an outbound filter to give good feedback (and it doesn’t always work which is why I make such an effort to build relationships with my team and colleagues) and break down my inbound filter so I could actually absorb what people told me.
He goes on to explain that most people fall into the outbound filter category; “nerds”, on the other hand, typically operate with an inbound filter. The author’s hypothesis is that as young nerds, like me and maybe many of you too, we were teased for being introverted, liking math or video games or anything else. This caused us developed an inbound filter for turning unwanted comments into things like “They’re just jealous” or “They just don’t get it”.
Over the years we developed a thicker skin, keeping our heads down and focusing on the things we could control (math, code, and numbers still make so much more sense than people). We focused less on our “softer” skills like communication and so – don’t have the same ease of communication with the outbound-filtered folks.
This inbound filtering is tied in with the very nature that makes us great engineers and technologists. We are constantly taking in problems and information, turning it over logically, and creating the most perfect solution we can. We like data, and data doesn’t care if you’re nice or pleasant – you just have to get it right. Our usual output is typically mathematical and structured; it’s no surprise that’s how so many of us naturally communicate the same way we write code.
Filters and Feedback
When it comes to feedback, this idea is critical; you’ve got to take your own filters into account, as well as those of the person giving you feedback.
If your manager is an outgoing executive, his outbound filter may cause him to soften the edges of a critique or make a joke in the middle of your meeting. Your inbound filter, on the other hand, may find this behavior extremely frustrating – “Why can’t he just give me the facts?” or “Does he really mean I should change things or not?”
Try to read between the lines and see every piece of feedback as a way to improve something.
The truth goes the other way around too. If you are on the receiving end of criticism, the power of improvement lies in your ability to work with your inbound filter, while also applying an outbound filter to maintain the relationship.
For me, I once had a manager give me feedback that I felt was completely unwarranted and replied with “Well obviously you didn’t understand the complexity of the project.” Ouch. That comment didn’t improve my relationship, or my chances to move up in the organization. No ones will like you for making them feel stupid – especially your boss. You may get frustrated and say something blunt, which can put the brakes on an otherwise helpful review. Understand where your peer is coming from, and you’ll be more objective and effective every time.
Working With Your Filters and Feedback
Easy communication doesn’t have to come naturally to you to be able to make a feedback situation work. Being aware of your own inclinations is a great way to walk into a meeting; stay on top of what your body language and responses are communicating to your reviewer, and try to pick out the main points of their critique to focus on.
If you’re actively engaged in interpreting what they’re saying, you’ll be in great shape to make the most of the information you’re given. Here are a few other ways to make your critique work for you.
It’s usually not the case that before you walked into their office, the person giving you feedback typed up a full outline of points to make. Plenty of feedback takes the form of a conversation, and like most conversations, both parties don’t always express themselves perfectly. Don’t forget that the person giving you feedback may be nervous too.
If you’re not sure you’re interpreting the feedback they’re giving you correctly – just ask! You are allowed to ask questions, and your reviewer will likely appreciate the chance to clarify any points that didn’t completely sync up. The point of these questions shouldn’t be to defend yourself or undermine your reviewer; rather, asking clarification questions allows you to put a point in your own words and make sure you’ll be able to recall and act on it.
You can always ask for clarification after the fact too. If it takes you some time to process the information you received, you can absolutely think about it and get back to them. And if you feel like their feedback is coming from a less than helpful (i.e. they don’t have your best interests at heart) feel free to say thanks and reflect on what nuggets of truth may be there. I know I am guilty of ignoring feedback because I didn’t care for the reviewer, and in the end that didn’t really help me.
Some of my go-to questions are:
- What would you have done differently?
- Do you think this is a systemic problem, or a one off? Why?
- Would you recommend I take corrective action? Should I apologize?
- What could I do to improve the perception of the situation/mistake/incident?
- Were there any positive parts?
- Have you ever dealt with this before, or do you know someone else who has?
As I said at the beginning of the post, one of the easiest things to do is walk out of a critique and return immediately to your normal routine. This is bad! Remember that your inclination may be to blow off any outside information that doesn’t immediately seem useful, but take some time to turn your review into actionable items (even if you ultimately decide not to do them).
Make it a point to do something with your feedback – whether it’s:
- Making a list of specific, personal action items (think: checking in with my team at least once every day, signing up for that professional development workshop, etc)
- Setting a more general goal (practice public speaking)
- Going back to improve a discussed project, implementing suggestions from your reviewer
- Mulling over their advice, picking out the one or two items that made your ears perk up, and discarding the rest
Not every critique you get is going to change your life, and that’s okay. The necessary action for you is to spend some time with the information you received and deciding what it will mean to you. As soon as you’re out of the hot seat, go write down the main bullet points from your review so they don’t just drift out of your mind over the next few hours.
Interpreting feedback gets easier if you increase your self-awareness and become an active participant in the situation. You may even find that becoming aware of your own inbound filter can make your day-to-day life around the office better! You’ll begin to read subtler cues from your leaders and peers and you can adjust your performance well before it’s time for your next review.