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  • Writer's pictureBrett Simpson

In my experience…receiving feedback is a skill

Performance reviews were a huge deal early in my career.  They happened formally once a year and determined my raise, bonus, promotability and professional stature.  I now appreciate the hyper-competitiveness they created because that resulted in the acceleration of my professional growth and experience.  The process was stressful and forced me to quickly learn to more effectively play the performance management game.

It was fairly safe to assume that consistent high performance was a minimum requirement for a strong rating.  I say ‘fairly safe’ because it wasn’t true that all high performers were rated well or even that some low performers didn’t sneak in to the highly-rated crowd.  The x-factor that was as, if not more, important than actual performance was the strength and reputation of the person representing me in the rating meetings.

I lucked out in those early days because I was represented by high performers.  This was a time when many of us performed well, so differentiation was challenging to prove.  When performance couldn’t be the distinguishing element, the tie-breaker was how well I aligned myself to the true influencers and decision makers, including my representative.  I’m thankful to that process and those that represented me for not only pushing me to perform well but also for teaching me the political side of business at an early stage in my career.

Interestingly, that entire process is now a thing of the past, thrown out as archaic, unproductive and “not the best way to motivate and get the best out of employees” (not to mention the fairness or unfairness of it, depending on how well you played the game). Instead of formal annual performance reviews many organizations have changed to a more dynamic, real-time system of feedback.  This makes sense to me and is likely a better approach at the organizational level for course-correcting low performance immediately and also rewarding and retaining high performers.

Regardless of the performance management methodology used, in my experience, receiving feedback is a skill.  Anyone can sit there and listen while someone else provides them with feedback, but it’s how they receive it and what they do with it afterwards that really separates the successful from the rest.  The ability to act on feedback starts with how you receive it.

This is something I’ve become better at over time, but I haven’t perfected the skill yet.  I try to ask for feedback when it’s not proactively offered, and I’m more intentional when receiving and processing it.  This topic is top-of-mind because I provide a lot of feedback to clients in an advisory capacity (as opposed to a performance management capacity), specifically senior executives, and I’m now convinced more than ever that receiving feedback is absolutely a skill.

The senior executives who are good at receiving feedback are thoughtful, reflective and ask clarifying questions.  Those that are less adept are deflective, in denial and defensive.  It’s refreshing to deal with the former and disappointing to deal with the latter.  The point of feedback is to help and enable advancement, and a negative reaction from the recipient ironically undermines the purpose of the feedback in the first place.  The underlying assumption here is that the feedback itself is valid, valuable and constructive, because if it’s not then everyone loses.

Special thanks to Carol Espinosa who has created an amazing environment of giving and receiving feedback within her company, and to Debi Picciolo whose ability to provide feedback to me is the model for how I provide feedback to clients today.

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