Feedback: Lean In or Back Away?

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This article appeared on athenainsight.

A colleague of mine, whose opinion I value deeply, recently gave me some feedback that was hard for me to hear. Once I got over my discomfort, I learned two important lessons: 1) I had a behavior that needed fixing, and 2) feedback has three stages — and that “ouch” I felt is the first stage!

The “ouch” stage is where the feedback stings. We may feel hurt, embarrassed, shocked—any range of painful emotions. Occasionally this passes quickly, but more often, this discomfort can linger.

In stage two, we believe (and often say!), “It’s not me, it’s you.” Stage two gets our defenses up. We see the feedback as the giver’s problem, not ours:

  • “I wasn’t unclear in my instructions. You just weren’t paying attention!”
  • “I wasn’t sweet-talking the boss. You’re just jealous that I got the better assignment.”
  • “Just because I was critical once isn’t the problem. You’re critical all the time!”

It’s not that we’re consciously trying to dodge the feedback; we really do see the other person as the problem.

If we’re lucky, we get through this second stage and move on to stage three: learning. This is where we can actually see the truth in the feedback—and there is almost ALWAYS some truth in the feedback—and think about what we can learn from it.

Sometimes we get through these three stages quickly, but more often, it takes some time.

With the feedback I received from my colleague, the process took me about two weeks. I’d like to tell you I flew right through or even skipped stages one and two and got right to the learning, but it just isn’t true. My ego was wounded. I was a little embarrassed. And yes, I blamed my colleague. It took me a little while to get through that and move to a place where I could truly—not just pretend to—learn from the experience.

Of course, I’m not the only one to get feedback. A big part of my job as an executive coach is to give feedback to clients. I’ve been coaching two executives, Ed and Derek (not their real names), who both received very, very negative feedback recently.

As part of my work with each of them, I collected feedback from 12-18 of their direct reports, peers, managers, and other senior leaders via interviews. In both cases, the resulting feedback report highlighted strengths but also raised significant development areas, including:

  • Arriving late to meetings, being on the phone, and generally giving the impression of not caring about the discussion at hand
  • Publically criticizing people and their performance in a way that left them feeling beaten and humiliated
  • Not following through on commitments, which led people to not trust their leader to do what he said he was going to do

In both cases, many of the leaders’ colleagues concluded that the individual should probably not be in the leadership role they were in, and that the organization would be better served to have them in a very senior individual contributor role instead.


This is where their stories diverge. Ed received the feedback report prior to our debrief meeting and then postponed the meeting. A day later, he emailed to tell me he didn’t want to continue with coaching. I asked him why, and for feedback on our coaching, but I haven’t heard from him. I can’t know for sure why he chose to discontinue our work together, but my hypothesis is that the feedback was just too uncomfortable. The “ouch” was too painful, and he wasn’t ready, willing, or capable of exploring it and learning from it. Ed’s a smart, capable, and good person and has been wildly successful in his career. He has a lot to offer his company. And right now, learning from feedback doesn’t appear to be his priority.

Derek reacted differently. At first, he tried to skip over the “ouch” stage and the defensive stage and go straight to learning. He wanted to move quickly from the feedback to what he could do differently. A week or two later, after he had some time to reflect more on the feedback, he shared how painful it was to hear. And yes, he explained why one person I interviewed said what she said, and what her problem was. To his credit, he quickly caught himself and recognized that almost all feedback has an element of truth and that what he heard was this one person’s truth.

Derek is now deep in the learning phase. He has gone back to each person I spoke with to thank them for their feedback, share what he learned, ask any questions he still has, and tell them what they can expect from him going forward. These followup meetings are often the hardest and also the most valuable part of the feedback process. They go a long way toward repairing any damaged relationships, and they require a lot of strength to resist defensiveness and focus on learning. Derek has done this really, really well.

It’s interesting to note that Ed has been asked to step down from his leadership position and take a very senior strategy role with no direct reports. It’s unclear whether he’ll repair the relationships he damaged. Derek is still leading his large global team, has received accolades from his manager and many colleagues for how he handled the feedback, and is working hard to improve his leadership. It’s been hard work for him to process the feedback and get to the learning. He persevered because he believes it’s worth it.

I have to believe that Ed’s shift away from a leadership role and Derek’s progress are both directly related to their ability to get to the learning stage of their feedback. I’ve seen very few leaders who can continue their trajectory of success at senior levels without navigating the “ouch,” moving past their defensiveness, and becoming skilled at learning from feedback.

Jennifer L. Porter Jennifer Porter is the Managing Partner of The Boda Group. She is a graduate of Bates College and the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and an experienced operations executive. As an executive and team coach, Jennifer bridges the art and science of leadership to help leaders become more self-aware, authentic, and effective. Her significant and growing understanding of how great leaders think, behave, and change help her clients transform their leadership. Learn more about Jennifer or get in touch.