Six Guiding Principles for Receiving Feedback

Two Business Women Talking

A lot of attention is given on how to provide feedback to other people, but less attention is given to how we should receive the feedback to help us improve. The following are six guiding principles that can help us receive feedback given to us. These principles can be applied to most situations in which you receive feedback.

  1. Use this as an opportunity to demonstrate your ability to accept and act on feedback by sharing with others.
  2. Don’t take it personally, make it useful.
  3. Keep in mind your current responsibilities and career objectives as you consider what feedback matters most.
  4. Pay attention to what stands out, surprises you, or is different from what you expected and why.
  5. The feedback can tell you as much about your respondents as it does about yourself.
  6. Find strengths that you can build on.

We will address each of these points in more detail.

1. Use this as an opportunity to demonstrate your ability to accept and act on feedback by sharing with others.

Which individual would you most prefer to work with?

  1. A person who says they will change something but doesn’t.
  2. A person who says they won’t change but then does.
  3. A person who says they will change and does.

For most of us, the first person would start out with our appreciation and end up with less respect. The second person would initially be frustrating, but we would be glad they made the change. The third person would be most appreciated, because they not only made a change, they also did what they said they would do.

As you receive professional feedback, share that feedback with somebody else, such as a manager or trusted peer, depending on who gave you the feedback. Don’t just share the feedback but share your thoughts and plans for acting on it. This may include the decision not to take specific actions, but they will see your reasoning as to why not. Do find something you can and will act on. You will then improve, and others will see the improvements you are making and gain confidence in your ability to learn and grow.

2. Don’t take it personally, make it useful.

“You’re amazing!” or “You’re an idiot!” One of these statements makes you feel good and one hurts. In general, you want to work with people who are more inclined to share the positive than the negative, but you want to manage both. Hopefully, you work in an environment of professionalism where calling names is not the norm. Even better if you and the people you work with are more inclined to build each other up.

Regardless of whether the feedback is positive or negative, don’t take it personally. Let positive feedback boost your confidence but not make you arrogant. Let negative feedback give you pause but not paralyze you. Our brains are wired to focus on the negative points and want to move into a fight or flight mode. Take a moment to breathe and consider whether there is merit to the negative feedback. Whether or not there is, it becomes an opportunity to better understand the feedback provider, which will be further discussed in point #5 below.

3. Keep in mind your current responsibilities and career objectives as you consider what feedback matters most.

When we debrief 360 results for an individual or engagement survey results for an organization, we often have to remind them: “Here is what we are seeing and what the data seem to show. Now you have the more complete context of your life or organization and need to bring that to bear on results for better insight.” There may be something that looks more urgent based on the data than what the context would suggest, or given your goals and objectives, addressing certain points might have a greater benefit. Remember, you get to decide what you ultimately want to focus on.

4. Pay attention to what stands out, surprises you, or is different from what you expected and why.

People generally have a sense of what their feedback will look like. They might say, “I know I will get high scores from my manager and low scores from my direct reports, because I have to push my direct reports really hard to get the results needed to move up in this company.” Regardless, it is likely that something in the feedback will be different from what you expected. That doesn’t mean it is good or bad, but it does represent a disconnect between your perception and others’. You may be surprised at how positive the feedback was. This can be a great opportunity to close the gap in your behavior, whether that’s leaning into a strength or modifying a weakness.

5. The feedback can tell you as much about your respondents as it does about yourself.

My daughter has noticed that I often comment about dishes piling up in the kitchen sink and how the dishwasher is loaded, but I don’t typically say much about the kitchen floor being swept—unless it really needs it. This may have more to do with what I value in terms of kitchen tidiness than in the quality of the floor sweeping or dish cleaning. Another reason for this is that I normally unload the dishwasher, thus, whether or not it is loaded and how it is loaded directly impacts me.

Likewise, there might be aspects of your work that are of particular importance to your manager, which may cause her to be more “critical” or discerning in that area when providing feedback. On the flip side, high marks in another aspect of your work could mean that it is a strength for you or that you simply meet the needs and expectations of those providing feedback.

6. Find strengths that you can build on.

As mentioned previously, our brains are wired to focus on perceived threats. Human nature is inclined to focus on the negative feedback and move into fight or flight mode, in which your vision narrows and your ability to think clearly decreases. However, we recommend that as you approach feedback look for strengths you can leverage to be more effective at what you do. You are more likely to be more effective recognizing and leveraging strengths, taking a skill from good to great than from trying to move a skill from poor to good.


Again, these points are most applicable to professional feedback, especially in 360 form; however, they have applicability to some degree or another with most feedback that we receive. Regardless of the context, use these principles to help you demonstrate that you have a learning mindset and are open to growth as you accept and act on the feedback others give.

Why Does Feedback Matter?

Ignorance Is Not Bliss

A woman with spinach in her teeth

Have you ever looked in the mirror and discovered a little piece of spinach stuck in your teeth and then thought, “Has that been there since lunch? I’ve been talking to

people all afternoon. Why didn’t anybody tell me about it?”

If somebody had told you earlier that there was spinach in your teeth, it would have been an embarrassing moment; however, it would have been less painful than the thought that the spinach had been there during all of your conversations and meetings. Ultimately you would be grateful that the person cared enough to let you know, because it can be awkward for them too. And even if the spinach went away before you saw it, that doesn’t change the fact that everybody else experienced you with it.

Feedback Saves Us from Embarrassment

As in the example above, there might be something in our conduct, behavior or mannerisms that is distracting, annoying or even offensive. It might be something as simple as the heavy use of filler words in our speech, such as, “like”, “um” or “you know”. However, it might be more serious like believing that you are a topic expert when in reality those around you find your knowledge and skills lacking.

These potential embarrassments might be caused by a lack of awareness. Or in some instances, there might be a cultural gap. Regardless we need feedback from others to help us improve. Just like working on your throwing technique or learning another language, feedback is key to helping us improve, which makes us look better.

Feedback Helps Us Focus on What Matters Most

In a Harvard Business Review article, the authors noted that in a survey conducted by VitalSmarts, “Eighty percent of the 1,335 respondents said their boss has a significant weakness that everyone knows and discusses covertly with each other, but not directly with their manager.” Regardless of whether you know or want to know what others think, they still have their thoughts and opinions. You can choose to learn about others’ perspectives or try to move forward with little guidance on what might matter most.

Most of us will admit that we have room to grow, and we often even have a sense of where we should grow. We also tend to have a sense of what our strengths are; however, we sometimes think we are stronger in an area than others do, or that strength may actually be holding us back in some way.

Because we all have areas where we could improve, it helps to get the perspective of others to make sure we focus on the areas that will have the biggest impact. In particular, getting your manager’s view on what your next best development action should be will likely serve you better than going with your gut. Your manager’s broader perspective and deep experience could save you from spending time in an area with little return.


Ultimately feedback matters. When it comes to our growth and development as professionals, ignorance is not bliss. It is a roadblock. Feedback matters because without knowing the perspectives of those around us, we could be walking around with metaphorical spinach in our teeth or blindly pursuing what we think might most help us succeed but is actually of little consequence. Feedback matters because it puts you in the driver’s seat with a view of the road conditions and your destination. You still choose your path, you just do so from a much better vantage point, with a much greater likelihood of quickly reaching your destination.

How to Accept Difficult Feedback

We all know we need feedback to grow and improve, but when negative feedback is on its way, we are likely to duck and cover or worse, stand and fight. So why do we avoid the very feedback that we may need to achieve our own aspirations?

The simple answer is, negative feedback hurts. The same regions in the brain that light up when we have physical pain also light up when we receive negative feedback. The “pain” primes us for an immediate instinctive fight or flight response. The thoughtful, rational consideration the feedback deserves is nowhere to be found.

So, what can we do?

Worried man in a business conversation

First, know that negative feedback does not require a quick response or any response at all. Unlike physical pain, your hand is not really burning so you don’t need to remove it from the flame.

Second, listen, listen, listen. Let the feedback come out until it has run out. Resist the temptation to formulate a response or judge the validity of the feedback. Your mind is not in the best state to do this. You need time to let the pain response subside, then you will have access to your higher brain where reasoning and judgment reside. Of course, if you have the skills, active listening where you restate and seek clarity is encouraged. Keep it about understanding the feedback, not evaluating it or defending yourself in any way.

Third, say thank you and smile if you can. Try saying something like “Thank you, you’ve given me a lot to think about. I appreciate your taking the time to share that with me.” This will keep the feedback channel open. Who knows what you could learn in the future.

Fourth, step back and reflect. This is where the real work begins. To unpack the meaning buried in the words, you will need to use your higher brain functions. Metaphorically step back and away from yourself. From your higher, more objective vantage point, can you see the perspective of the individual who gave you the feedback? Assume for a moment that what they say is true or at least true for them from their viewpoint. Now consider what you would do if it were true. Would those actions be helpful to you even if the feedback was off the mark?

Fifth, take a “rent to own” approach with the feedback. Try it on and walk outside the shop for a day or two. Most of us dismiss the feedback before we even take a look in the mirror.

If it really doesn’t fit after a few days, feel free to chalk it up to a misunderstanding or just an off day for you or the feedback giver. But more likely you will find that while the whole message may not resonate, at least a kernel does; that kernel may just be the piece of feedback you need to grow and develop to achieve your aspirations.

So the next time a rough piece of feedback comes your way, remember:

  • No immediate response required
  • Listen, listen, listen (no judging nor defending)
  • Say “thank you” to keep the feedback channel open
  • Step back and away, then reflect – engage your higher brain
  • Take a “rent to own” approach – don’t dismiss it too early
  • Find the kernel and act accordingly