Flipping the Script on Feedback: Teaching Employees How to Take It

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Jun 19, 2012

Once upon a time, I was charged with implementing talent management for the company where I worked.

I eagerly took on the task and, with the help of a crafty consultant; we built an elegant competency-driven program.

As with any good talent management program, this one required managers to engage in a competency assessment for each of their people. And, as you probably know, talent assessment requires feedback discussions.

Since this was the first time we’d ever done anything like this at the company, we decided to do the logical thing (he says jokingly) and start with the executives. Our thinking was that surely the executives, with all of their years of experience, would be masters at giving feedback.

Shell shocked from honest feedback

We launched the program. The executives, to their credit, embraced the process and did their part. They completed assessments, participated in talent calibration meetings, and most importantly, carried back the feedback to each of their people. Many of the people on the receiving end of the feedback, despite being Vice Presidents and Directors with the organization, had never been given any feedback like this.

It was a train wreck.

People freaked out. As we discovered, when you’ve only been told throughout your career at the company that you were doing great, and suddenly you were given some less than sparkling feedback, the immediate reaction is not one of gratitude.

Executives were shell shocked by the reaction. Those on the receiving end of the feedback went into a frenzy. Everyone was suddenly less sure about the value of this whole talent management thing.

3 insights from the feedback freak-out

And we were given a tremendous learning experience. Here’s what we discovered.

  1. Assuming that executives know how to give feedback or have meaningful career discussions just because they are executives was a bad idea. They don’t know how. And, by nature of being executives, they aren’t going to tell you that they don’t know how because they know that they should know and they don’t want to burst the bubble of their “executiveness.”
  2. Very few people are skilled at receiving feedback. Even when it’s delivered perfectly, by the book, a person getting unexpected negative feedback is likely to react in a way that they probably won’t be proud of later.
  3. Despite all of the freaking out, a tremendous amount of good came out of the process. Some people change jobs, some were promoted and others left the company either by choice or force. The process worked. The feedback worked. But, the messiness and pain involved was far too high for our liking.

Lessons we learned — and shared

So, we adapted and decided to train people on how to receive feedback. Here are a few of the lessons we shared with our employees.

  • Feedback is just information. It’s neither good, nor bad.
  • Feedback, particularly when it highlights something that might have been a blind spot, is a gift. Negative feedback reveals a very real perception about you that you may not have been aware of, but that is affecting your career. For example, if people feel that you aren’t a team player, whether that is true or not, it affects whether they will work with you or seek you out. Good information to know, even if it stings a bit to hear.
  • The best thing to do when you receive feedback is to simply hear it and try to understand it. You aren’t required to agree, just understand. Then, take some time to reflect on it, to try it on and see if it fits. Ask the question, could this be true?
  • Finally, feedback presents us with an opportunity to make a decision. Once you’ve heard and understood it, this is what you can do with it.
    1. Reject the feedback as misinformed or false and carry on as you were before.
    2. Acknowledge the feedback might be true, but chose to ignore it.
    3. Embrace the feedback as true and use it to learn and grow.

It’s best to learn how to receive

Each of these decisions comes with a consequence, positive or negative. Empowering people with the idea that they have a choice to accept or reject their feedback helped them be more open to receiving it. And more times than not, the employees chose option 3.

Once we began to teach our employees how to receive feedback constructively, our elegant process began to work as we had expected. Managers and employees had much more productive conversations and the employees reacted far more appropriately to the feedback they received—hardly any freak-outs.

So, the moral of this story is that when it comes to feedback, teach people how to receive it rather than spending so much time worrying about the way in which your managers deliver it. Your managers will give more feedback once they aren’t afraid of the freak-out. And your employees will better embrace the feedback when it comes. Win, win.

This was originally published on Jason Lauritsen’s blog at

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