Sheila Heen: Identify Your Triggered Reactions to Change the Way You Receive Feedback

Sheila Heen walked onto the stage at the 2017 Nordic Business Forum in Stockholm and opened with an anecdote of when she was writing her book on receiving feedback. After reading the book proposal, her mother-in-law took it as an opportunity to give Heen feedback about everything from the state of her home to her wedding dress choice.

“If you want a little extra helping of criticism in your life, write a book on receiving feedback,” she said. “It’s like open season with everyone you know.”

In her session, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, which bears the same name as her aforementioned book, the Harvard Law School lecturer said that she wrote her book in response to comments from leaders who had hired her to help them give feedback.

“One day it occurred to us, in any exchange of feedback, it’s the receiver who’s in charge,” Heen said. “It’s the receiver who decides what they’re going to take in, what sense they’re going to make of it and whether or how they choose to change.”

When she talks about feedback, it goes beyond the formal performance review. It includes all informal feedback – spoken and unspoken, direct and indirect. It’s the signals you receive from the people around you.

“It’s your relationship with the world and the world’s relationship with you,” Heen said.

Three types of feedback

The difficult part about receiving feedback, she noted, is the tension that comes at the intersection of two core needs: the desire to learn and grow and the need to feel loved and respected just as we are.

With that in mind, Heen said we need the right balance of the three types of feedback for it to be effective:

  • Appreciation: Knowing that you are valued and recognized.
  • Coaching: Anything that helps you improve – Heen called this “the engine for learning.”
  • Evaluation: Rating your performance against a set of expectations, a benchmark.

When you’re receiving feedback, it’s easy to tune out some of these types and not receive the complete message. For example, when people have a strong reaction to evaluation, they may either think, “This person just doesn’t understand me, so I don’t have to listen to these suggestions,” or “Wow, I’m doing great! I don’t need any coaching.” People who feel underappreciated also back away from coaching.

Heen then walked participants through a self-evaluation that she recommended they take back to their teams as well.

She asked three questions:

  • How appreciated do you feel, and what makes you feel appreciated? For example, is it hearing praise or is it receiving difficult assignments that make you feel like a valued team member?
  • How much coaching are you getting, and what would you like more of?
  • What expectations are in place to measure performance?

Getting feedback from unexpected sources

She added that feedback is not simply a top-down mechanism. Sometimes the most valuable feedback can come from the bottom up.

“We think we need coaching and appreciation from the people we report to, but often the people who are well placed to coach you work shoulder to shoulder with you,” Heen said. The people who work for you know what you need to work on but may be afraid to tell you. So sometimes you simply need to ask. But it isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Rather than asking “Do you have any feedback for me?” which would likely get a “No,” Heen suggested asking “What’s one thing that I’m doing or failing to do that you think is getting in my way?” It’s much less intimidating for your peers, direct reports or even friends to offer up one item upon which you could improve. In fact, Heen said, after that conversation goes well, you may get a follow-up email with a laundry list of other areas of improvement.

Changing your reaction

Receiving feedback well does not obligate you to implement the idea. You just have to show the person that you are open to fully listening to and understanding what they are saying before shutting them out. Heen said that the problem is that when we initially receive feedback, we’re looking for what’s wrong with it so we can set it aside and move on.

“There will always be something wrong with the feedback you get,” Heen countered. “It could be 90 percent wrong, but that last 10 percent is something you should start thinking about – that may be the thing that could make you grow to the next level.”

By understanding these three triggered reactions, Heen said, we can begin to better receive feedback:

  • Truth Triggers: Assess the quality of the feedback – is it good or bad, will it work – and challenge yourself to understand what the person means and to see yourself from a new perspective.
  • Relationship Triggers: We are often more likely to receive feedback from a relative stranger than from those who are close to us, so challenge yourself to separate the who from the what.
  • Identity Triggers: Understand your feedback sensitivity, or how intensely feedback affects your mood and your actions.

“The challenge is to hold your triggered reaction and, instead, before you decide if you agree or disagree, work to understand it,” Heen said.

She closed her presentation by telling the story of a trip to Denali National Park in Alaska. Her family wanted to go on a guided hike, but the only one available was rated “Most Difficult.” Heen thought to herself that her children – 16, 13 and 10 – would be able to do it, so she signed them up. What she didn’t expect was to be challenged herself. During their six-hour hike, they ended up exploring unchartered territory that was breathtakingly beautiful, making the struggle worth it.

“Taking on the challenge of learning and engaging better feedback conversations in your organization is the most difficult option to take, but it also has the best rewards,” she said. “There aren’t established paths. No one knows how to do it perfectly yet, but imagine the view when you go together, and you get there.”


This article is a part of the Executive Summary of Nordic Business Forum SWEDEN. Get your digital copy of the summary from the link below.

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