This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "What Got You Here Won't Get You There" by Marshall Goldsmith. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What is the best way to respond to co-workers’ feedback? How do you overcome defensiveness in the face of negative feedback?
Requesting feedback from your colleagues is the first step to improving your management skills, but that feedback means nothing if you don’t know how to respond to it. You need to resist the urge to become defensive and instead, figure out what you can do to improve.
Here is how you should go about responding to feedback from your colleagues.
The Aftermath of Getting Feedback
Once you’ve requested and received feedback from your colleagues, your next step is to interpret and respond to the feedback. If you’re lucky, their feedback will indicate that you only have one bad habit. In this case, your next steps forward will be simple: figure out what you’re going to do to overcome that habit, and get started.
However, if your feedback suggests you’ve been engaging in two or three bad behaviors, the process of starting to change becomes a bit more complex. You’ll need to decide which of your bad habits to address first.
Deciding Which Habit to Change First
If you receive feedback that suggests you’ve got multiple bad habits, your initial instinct may be to try to overcome them all as quickly as possible. You may think that ceasing all of your bad behaviors at once will be the most effective and efficient way to become a better colleague and repair your reputation.
However, if you take this approach, you’ll quickly become overwhelmed. Unlearning even one bad habit is challenging—it takes a lot of time and energy. Overcomplicating this process by trying to change multiple habits at once will divide your time and energy in too many directions for you to make real progress. You’ll quickly become mentally exhausted and struggle to continue with the process. For this reason, it’s best to stick to fixing one behavior at a time.
So if you should only fix one behavior at a time, which should you choose to tackle first? Goldsmith advises choosing the flaw that featured the most prominently in your feedback. For example, if 10% of the people you asked for feedback told you that you were a bad listener, but 80% of respondents said you have a problem with anger, tackle your anger issue first.
Goldsmith argues that the more people bring up a flaw, the more likely it is to be a serious problem. Therefore, frequently mentioned issues should always be at the top of your list of things to change.
Resisting the Urge to Get Defensive
When you receive and start to interpret your feedback, it’s important to resist the urge to get defensive. In other words, don’t immediately jump to discredit the feedback and claim, either privately or publicly, that it must be incorrect.
In many ways, getting defensive following criticism of your behavior is a natural reaction. Nobody likes to hear that they’ve been acting in a way that other people disapprove of. It knocks your confidence and reminds you that you’re fallible—a concept that, as we’ve already discussed, successful people often struggle to accept. Therefore, you’ll likely do anything to avoid having to accept that you’re not perfect and may need to change your behavior—including outright rejecting your negative feedback.
Ultimately, when you receive your feedback, you need to accept it as both truthful and probably accurate. Look at the situation logically. If you’ve followed the process outlined above, you’ll have only asked for feedback from people who’ve promised to be honest. Therefore, it’s highly unlikely that what they’ve said about you is untrue. Likewise, if multiple people have given feedback that highlights the exact same problematic habits, it’s highly unlikely that they’re all wrong.
Accepting that your feedback is correct and that you’ve developed bad habits will likely be a humbling and painful process. However, remind yourself that ultimately, this pain will be worth it. Admitting to and overcoming your bad behaviors will enable you to both progress further in your career, and grow as a person.
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