I recently supported two leaders as they processed performance feedback that hurt their feelings. One felt disoriented and wounded because the most critical input was about capabilities she thought were her distinguishing strengths. It made her question her brand and the legacy she created in her career. “This is not who I am!” she protested. Many of us fall on this end of the spectrum when receiving feedback. We worry that the suggested improvements actually represent scathing criticism and let our inner critic convince us that every colleague sees us as limited in this way. We struggle to remember this one piece of feedback in the appropriate context with all of the praise, appreciation, and other years of success.
Then there’s the other extreme. We don’t like the feedback or aren’t ready to hear it and so completely write it off to protect ourselves. There are plenty of excuses for doing this. As the other leader I supported summarized, “That was when I realized this feedback wasn’t about me at all.” Sometimes this is true. And sometimes, we need more time to have our initial reaction before turning back with curiosity to look for any parts of the input that may be useful.
Why does feedback hurt our feelings? Here’s the image that often helps me identify what is being triggered. Imagine yourself as a baby. As you interacted with the world, you learned behaviors and strategies that helped get your needs met. When you smiled, others smiled back at you. When you fell and hurt yourself, adults rushed over to comfort you or gave you space to see how you felt or scolded you not to cry. With each of these patterns of interactions, you started to create beliefs about yourself, about the world, and about how the world treats you. Most of these beliefs are unconscious. While we like to think of ourselves as highly adaptable people, always capable of learning new things, the truth is that our lives are simplified by having these beliefs to fall back on. And we have powerful enforcers like the superego (a.k.a. your inner critic) that are constantly looking for evidence that enforces these beliefs and ignoring information that contradicts them.
So, back to our illustration. Imagine yourself as a baby with protective layers of beliefs wrapping around you. Each of these layers has within it patches of velcro - places that can be triggered by a word, or facial expression, or behavior that you recognize as being related to your belief. Your inner critic is constantly looking for anything that will stick to these velcro patches so it can say “See, I told you so!” and launch an old strategy in reaction. We continue adding to these layers as adults at work. There are labels we have come to believe about ourselves that carry a strong charge - "good communicator", "procrastinator", "introvert", "star performer". We are unconsciously waiting to hear those layers activated as well and may feel upset if they aren't validated by our feedback.
Let me share a personal example. When I was a child, if a person who had a lot of power in my life expressed a strong opinion, my unconscious strategy was to agree with them or avoid expressing my dissent. This strategy helped get my needs met in some situations and I also applied it an a lot of circumstances that weren’t helpful. We all do this. So, years later, during a performance feedback conversation, my manager recommended that I assert my opinion and make direct recommendations more often. This was very appropriate feedback for a leader with my seniority and yet I felt extremely triggered when I received it. That idea - “You need to express your opinion” - stuck to the velcro on my protective belief that said “You need to keep your opinions to yourself to avoid conflict and stay safe.” So, I had a very human reaction in the middle of this performance conversation. My body flooded with adrenalin. My safety trigger was activated. Even though my brain knew this was a good next step in my development, my body needed to have its reaction.
When I have an overwhelming response like this, I try to do the same thing I teach my clients to do: let myself experience it. By connecting to my breath and my body, I feel grounded enough to notice my reaction with self-compassion and curiosity and let it change and make way for the next response. When I take the opposite approach - jumping to self-judgment about my reaction or projecting my discomfort outside and looking for someone to blame - I usually do something I regret. I lash out at the person giving me the feedback or shift to closed off, combative body language. When I’m rejecting the truth of what is happening in the moment - in this case, that I felt unsafe - I often make myself or the person I’m in conversation with “wrong”. I activate those old beliefs about myself and the world and grasp for anything to stick to that velcro - even if the fit is terrible and inaccurate.
And while this riot of responses is happening inside of us, what can we say to the person sharing the feedback? The truth usually works best. "I need some time to process this feedback. Can I ask you more questions about it later?"
The invitation for all of us during a feedback conversation is to grow. According to traditional ideas about development, we do that by trying new leadership behaviors that are recommended to us. However, the deeper transformation that is available is to notice the beliefs that have a grip on us and find freedom by loving and accepting the part of ourselves that was triggered.