“We need to talk”. She says. Oh great, I think. I’ve got a million things going on, tons of work to do, and now I’m in trouble. And I’m not talking about my wife!… this is coming from someone on my team who wants to give me some “constructive” feedback.

If you are like I was early in my career, this is a moment you dread. My stomach is doing somersaults, which is the emotional part of my brain (the amygdala). Fearing that I am about to be told I am doing something wrong or that I am a bad boss. Well, I’m doing my best, but I just don’t seem to be able to avoid being told what I’m not doing well (and let’s not even talk about getting EI360 feedback). And by the way, didn’t I already get this feedback six months ago? Why can’t I get better at ______ ? (fill in the blank with the behavior that is most annoying to others).

For most people, getting what we see as critical or negative feedback is like a bad dentist appointment we want to avoid. But I’ve learned something interesting from our research: according to our study of over 12,000 people, the ability manage our emotions and receive critical feedback without becoming defensive is a behavior highly correlated with people who rank as top 10% performers.

What I have learned is that getting critical feedback is actually a way to get an edge in performance and if you think that way, it can be a learning opportunity. In order to do that, we need to recognize two things:

  1. The feedback does not mean we are a bad person, bad boss or bad husband/wife. It does mean that we are like everyone else: not perfect. Feedback is someone offering us the opportunity to improve on something that is getting in the way of our performance.
  2. We can improve on just about anything we put our minds to. Of course there are some limits – I’m not going to be able to play basketball like Michael Jordan. What I have learned is that I can change some things that I never thought I’d getter better at – like listening and not interrupting (well, not as much as I used to).

When you stop seeing feedback as meaning you are bad, and begin seeing that you can improve on the feedback, the situation really does go from being a setback you just want to survive, to an opportunity to grow. By taking this approach, I’ve been able to become much more open to other people’s feedback, and in fact, now I ask for it!

And by the way, the person who had the courage to give you the feedback will feel respected, trusted and valued by you if you simply listen to the feedback without getting defensive, and then work on changing.

So now when I hear “we need to talk”, I still get the little prickly feeling in my stomach, but I am able to manage that emotional reaction by seeing it as an opportunity to improve and develop a deeper connection with that person.