Feedback is a gift. Now available with a gift receipt.

We’re coming upon midyear feedback time, and a colleague shared with me an interesting read on the subject, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science And Art of Receiving Feedback Well.   It’s an interesting premise that addresses the impact of neuroscience on how and what we hear when we receive feedback.  And that there’s an art to receiving it – part of which is the ability to reject it.  Apparently this can be helpful with overbearing in-laws.  As I read, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have taken the chance to reject the message from a years-ago feedback experience that sticks with me today.

I was in marketing at the time and presenting to our sales team during a days-long sales meeting.  For anyone in sales or who knows someone in sales, you know asking this group to sit still in a conference room for hours at a stretch is pretty torturous.  It’s like asking the cast of Hamilton to speak slowly.  So, in the interest of keeping things light to have any semblance of holding their attention, I started off my presentation with a cartoon that loosely linked to our sales messaging.  It got them laughing – mission accomplished.  After the presentation, I gave myself a tiny mental high five.

Later that day, my boss’s boss pulled me aside to tell me that he thought I should use humor less, as it was taking away from my credibility and made me seem like a less credible, effective leader.  I was incensed.  This was someone who didn’t know me or the team well.  And he was new to the company – so he couldn’t possibly know the culture.  I came up with loads of reasons to reject his feedback and stew on it.  And that’s where I remained for a while.

Finally, something, though that part escapes me, got me to think about what he said.  In the end, I realized, he was right.  And I heard related comments from my peers about others – distinguishing between ‘funny / entertaining’ and ‘great leader’.  In some cases this was based on a first impression that changed over time.  But of course, sometimes you get just that one.

I realized I didn’t have to be the funny person – where humor overshadowed what I really knew – to be heard.  At first I thought his feedback meant I had to change who I was but I came to realize that what he was suggesting was not to change who I am but rather to take a more situational approach to using my sense of humor.  It was a tough but really important learning.  And while I didn’t appreciate the feedback at the time, I am incredibly appreciative of it now.

So while there are useful lessons in the book, it strikes me that like all useful tools (and here’s another), the danger comes with overuse.  Early in my career I never really considered the option of rejecting feedback.  With the benefit of more of it I’ve learned to pay closer attention to the source and motivation.  It’s easy to react to feedback by focusing first and foremost on finding the flaw in the argument.  But with the benefit of lots of hindsight – doing so is often a missed opportunity.  In other words, use the gift receipt only after trying the gift on for size first.

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