by Peggy Hahn, LEAD Executive Director

Receiving feedback is a skill essential for adaptive leadership. Before you cringe with disgust, pain or boredom, consider this:

Accepting feedback at work is important,
but in families, it’s vital.
– Bruce Feiler, New York Times columnist and author 

The book Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen is the go-to resource for upping your leadership game as you grow through feedback from others. Learning to take a few steps back from the ledge of your own triggered reactions to feedback will shape your identity as a leader in ways that affirmation never will. This is one of the most important leadership practices and gifts you can share with others.

Here are three reasons why:

  1. Inquiring Minds Want to Know: Understanding that the brain is constantly under construction can help us navigate feedback. One of the brain’s primary survival functions is to manage approach and withdrawal. We tend to move toward things that are pleasurable and withdraw from things that are painful. Like sex, drugs, food, and exercise, feedback boggles the brain and mucks up the approach-withdrawal system. Doing what feels good now may be costly in the long run. What is healthy in the long run, may feel painful now. Think about this:

We all have a baseline. This is our default way of managing our emotions. We are not blown in completely new directions by each gust of wind that comes our way because we have an established way of navigating life.

We all have a swing. This is how far up or down we go when confronted by input from others. While this is prewired from infancy, it can be altered. (Keep reading!)

We all have to recover. This is how long it takes to return to baseline after good or bad news. Some of us recover quickly. Others get stuck for extended periods of time as they spin on the information received. Researcher Richard Davidson has found that recovery time can differ by as much as 3,000 percent between individuals.

Practices such as meditation, prayer, serving others, worship and exercise can raise your baseline over time. Life events that involve trauma or depression can have a profound impact on your baseline as well. Being engaged in a deep, relational community (like a congregation at its best) can rewire our brains to manage feedback in a positive way and raise our baseline.

  1. Implicit Rules Can Be Roadblocks: Understanding that the culture of our work environment (or our family culture) is filled with the implicit rules of “how we do things around here” is important to managing feedback. Discovering how we come across helps us increase our positive impact on others within a culture that operates differently from our own. This is more complex than saying one way is right (your way) and one way is wrong (their way). Feedback on how we are operating outside of a given cultural norm is gold, helping us lead within the context of a different worldview. By understanding more about the culture, even if we don’t like it, we can be more effective in influencing the future.
  1. Impact vs. Intent Matters: Feedback helps us see the gap between how we believe we come across and how we are actually received. Our own hopes and good intentions contribute to the story we tell ourselves, but they aren’t part of the stories others hear. Instead of immediately reacting to what we learn about how others experience our leadership, take a step back, take a deep breath, and learn from the new mirror offered to us. This mirror will show you your best self and, at the same time, provide a picture that may not be what you intend to communicate. The gap between the two is something you can only close if you are aware it exists. Here are a few examples from Stone and Heen:

Rather than immediately reacting to contradictory feedback, take a breath and consider how the same behavior is being described in different ways. It could be that others misunderstood you or it may be that you are unaware of your impact. Either way, when you hear feedback that catches you off guard, you can use it to learn about how you come across. You can ask yourself, “Do I have a blind spot in this area?” We all have them, so take another deep breath and love yourself enough to invest in personal growth.

The role of a faith community is huge in helping people navigate feedback. Don’t miss the point made earlier: a person’s baseline reaction to feedback can be altered in a positive way by meditation, prayer and service to others. We can use this for our own benefit and we can offer this to our congregation as a quiet way of loving them as we love ourselves.