Feedback Is Your Friend: Part Two

By Cal Zant
November 12, 2019

Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things. – Winston Churchill

Feedback either makes us better or bitter. Receiving candid feedback can be tough. “Your humility will never be more on trial than when criticism comes.” Be open and ask God to show you what He wants you to take to heart.

Craig Groeschel says, “One reason we don’t like feedback that tells us how to improve is that we feel it’s a critique of who we are. That’s not the case when it comes to good feedback. It’s about performance and actions, not identity. When you find yourself getting defensive, you’re likely hitting a trigger. The more you want to push back, the more you might need to listen instead.”

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as His children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? … God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. – Hebrews 12:7-11

Back when I led a team of programmers, I often repeated the phrase, “I am not my code.” It was critical for us to separate our identity and value as a person from our work. If someone wrote a bad piece of code, that didn’t mean they were a bad person or even a bad programmer. It simply meant we had something to learn, and we should do it differently next time. To produce the best possible software, we had to be free to critique each other’s work without someone feeling attacked or taking up an offense. “I am not my code,” helped remind us that just because something could have been better, it didn’t mean we were failures.

Side-step any cutting comments without getting hung up by them. Don’t take up an offense. “The humble person can learn from petty criticism, even malicious criticism. As you’re listening, simply ask yourself ‘Where is the nugget of truth here I need to learn from?’”

If the feedback is about our behavior or leadership, be especially gracious. Understand the critics’ perception is their reality. Don’t try to argue it away. What our employees actually experience trumps our intentions or any assertions we make. If there is a disconnect, it’s up to us as leaders to close the gap. Previously the issue was back in the shadows, by sharing it they’ve pulled it into the light so we can work on it together. Often this kind of feedback is very hard for the other person to share, so help the gift giver communicate it well by being empathetic and asking clarifying questions.

The art of processing feedback is to take it seriously, but not personally. If you hear “the ring of truth” in it, take responsibility, and commit to a couple of specific action items to focus on to improve. Learn from it, but don’t dwell on it. We shouldn’t let people’s compliments go to our head, or their criticism go to our heart. Instead of fixating on what happened in the past, focus on what needs to happen moving forward.

Once we know something, we can no longer be ignorant. If our people provide honest feedback, it’s not good enough to just say “thank you” – there must be action! Some might say, “It never hurts to ask.” In this case, it absolutely does. If you ask for feedback but fail to do anything with it, it shows a lack of integrity and erodes trust. As a result, people will be less likely to provide honest feedback in the future. From their perspective, there is no benefit, so it’s simply not worth the risk. We’d be better off never asking for feedback if we aren’t going to do anything differently based on it.

But also understand that just because a team member suggests something doesn’t mean we should immediately spring into action and do it. Getting better at receiving feedback does not obligate us to take the feedback. If we never say “no,” then our “yes” isn’t freely given. There may be a great reason we should dismiss the feedback, but we often decide too fast. As human beings we are incredibly good at “wrong spotting.” When feedback is incoming, we look for what is wrong with it. If we can find what is wrong with it, we can safely set it aside and move on with our lives. But if we admit it’s right, we have to change; therefore, we’re incredibly good at finding what is wrong.

Here is the problem: I promise you will always be able to find something that is wrong about the feedback you get. In fact, it may be 90% wrong – and that last 10% might be just what you need to learn and grow.

We have a responsibility to humbly hear out what they’re saying, and sincerely ask ourselves if there is something that needs to change. When someone gives us feedback, we have two choices on how to close the gap:

  1. Make a change.
  2. Communicate the heart behind why we don’t believe that is the best thing.

Either way, when someone takes the risk to be vulnerable and trust us with feedback, a transaction occurred, and as leaders we now have the burden of action that demands a response. It’s not always obvious to people that we took what they said seriously, so the best leaders intentionally circle back and follow-up with the person who gave the feedback. If we feel like we’ve made an improvement from feedback they’ve given us, ask them to be sure. This is a huge trust-builder! They’ll see we are serious about our desire to improve and continue to trust us with feedback in the future.

Putting It All Together

In a few of his letters in scripture Paul reminds us that, as believers, God wants to transform and mold us into the likeness of Jesus. God is gentle with us but is whole-heartedly committed to that as a daily and life-long process. While God is able to accomplish His work in whatever way He pleases, He typically prefers to work through people. That means sometimes how He shapes us is through people. That means sometimes how He shapes us is through feedback and correction from people around us. The transformation isn’t a result of painful striving, but the Holy Spirit working inside of us to illuminate the corners of our heart that God wants to redeem. Here is our role: Invite the Holy Spirit to prepare our heart, give us a true desire for feedback, discernment for what we need to take to heart, and the strength to act on it.

Lather, rinse, and repeat. Feedback isn’t a one-time event, but a fundamental mindset that candid feedback from others is indispensable to our growth. It’s about the humility to admit we still have room to grow, coupled with a strong, authentic, and active desire to grow. A hunger and lifestyle of seeking the truth flows out of that mindset. Feedback is rocket fuel for learning and progressive improvement. It’s about forward progress, not judgement. It’s not adversarial, but simply helping each other reach our God-given potential. The more feedback we get, the more mature and well-rounded we’ll become. As leaders, we must intentionally create avenues to get regular, timely feedback, both for us personally and for our teams. What are some practical ways we can incorporate feedback gathering into our team’s operations?

I’ve grown dramatically since I’ve joined this organization, but I’ve had to be deliberate to embrace feedback. Over time I’ve learned to seek it out, and even if it’s not presented in the right way, I try to humble myself and carefully sort through it asking “Lord, where is the truth here I need to learn from?” That could be the simple biggest catalyst for my own growth.

A friend once told me about a serious struggle they were having with their spouse of 40 years. Divorce was looming. When I asked if they’d shared how they were feeling with them, they hung their head and sadly replied, “That will only make it worse.” Unfortunately, I knew their spouse well and I could see how that might be the truth.

That served as a pivotal awakening for me on this fact: One of the most important traits in life could be that someone is able to come to me and be honest about one of my blind posts that is hurting others. If people feel like they can’t do that, it is the nail in the coffin of personal growth.

No single aspect can stunt growth more. Without feedback, we’re doomed to continue to live with our blind spots and character flaws, and at the end of our life there will be many hurt people in our wake. But there is hope! We get to decide whether it is safe for people to give us feedback, and there is so much power on the other side of this pendulum – if we embrace feedback there is nothing we can’t overcome!

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