When we receive negative feedback, we react irrationally out of fear.
Even people who have built ultra-successful careers, like chef and restauranteur Dave Chang, struggle to respond to negative feedback.
Here’s a simpler example from my childhood: In sixth grade, a girl in my class said I was mean.
I, who, earlier that day, had generously volunteered half my lunch to a classmate I didn’t even like because he didn’t have his, mean? How?
This girl and I weren’t the closest of friends (we fought over my best friend), but why would she say that unless it held some grain of truth? I freaked out! I could already picture my classmates talking about me behind my back. I had to do something.
I called my best friend on the telephone and declared, “Okay, I admit it! I’m mean…and I promise to be nicer next year.”
She said, “What are you talking about? I think you’re really nice.”
“Wait…I am?” I paused. Well, if my best friend says I’m nice, then I must really be nice…That girl was wrong! I’m not mean! And I quickly forgot anything had happened at all.
Ten years later, I still handle feedback like a sixth grader sometimes. I set unrealistic expectations for myself to work on my weaknesses or seek validation from other people to ignore them altogether. I also get defensive. Do you do that too?
We do it out of fear. We fear our flaws and we hate knowing we can’t control them. As a result, we ignore most of the constructive feedback we receive. One Columbia University researcher estimates that we disregard up to 70% of it. 1
Feedback, however, is a rare and valuable chance to grow. How much feedback have you received in your life? How much of it have you ignored? How many growth opportunities have you missed out on?
How to Build a 360 Survey
A 360 Survey is often used in work settings to gather anonymous feedback from an employee’s colleagues. It is unique because feedback is anonymous and respondents may have different directional relationships with the employee (e.g. respondents could be peers, supervisors, or direct reports).
While using PwC’s Career Advisor Program, The Question and I adopted the concept of a 360 Survey to learn about my strengths and weaknesses in an accurate and unbiased way. We knew that simply naming them wasn’t enough. What if I missed one? And we felt that asking friends and family face-to-face wasn’t a good idea either (e.g. In the story above, my best friend may have thought I was really nice, but I may have appeared mean to other people.), so we created a survey with the following questions: 2
- What are my good character traits?
- What are my not-so-good character traits?
- What am I good at doing?
- What am I not-so-good at doing?
- What role(s) have I played in your life?
- How long have you known Kristen?
- How well do you think you know Kristen?
How was this method more accurate than asking for verbal feedback?
It was double-blind. Find someone to analyze your responses for you. You’re biased, so you can’t read the responses yourself. You also shouldn’t use family members or close friends because they won’t be able to take the survey.
Instead, find an acquaintance who agrees to keep the responses confidential. I was lucky enough to work with my friend Jackie Riso whom I trusted and felt would be a good fit for the project because she is a life coach (you can check out her work, “A Glass Half Full”, here). Jackie read all of the survey responses for me and then took the time to write detailed, actionable responses to follow-up questions I wrote.
You can find a list of my follow-up questions here.
It had a control subject. You have opinions about yourself and opinions about how you think other people perceive you, so take the survey and be the baseline! Your survey responses will likely overlap with other people’s and where they overlap is a good place to look for actionable feedback.
All responses were anonymous. One of the benefits of a 360 Survey is that you receive honest feedback without straining personal relationships. Anonymity lets your friends and family be as honest as possible and protects your relationship with them. In your email explaining the survey to friends and family, mention that all feedback is anonymous and that you will never read what they write. Honor it! This feature of a 360 Survey is as much for the taker as it is for you.
If using Survey Monkey, here’s how you can change your settings to make all responses anonymous.
How Feedback From a 360 Survey Helps You Grow
It softens your inner dialogue. What I thought was one of my greatest weaknesses wasn’t even mentioned in the responses! We emphasize or invent weaknesses to obsess over. Why are we so hard on ourselves? Perfectionism, unachievable societal standards, low self-esteem? The answer is different for each person, but the 360 Survey is more unbiased than our opinions of ourselves and the results are almost never as bad as we think they are.
You accept your weaknesses. When I receive constructive criticism, I always feel an immediate need to cover my weakness up. I explain my mistake away, take back what I say, or even say, “Just kidding!”—anything to excuse my behavior. But when we try to hide our weaknesses, we give them power. They make us question ourselves and take up valuable brain space that we could be spending on other things. The 360 Survey says, “Everyone knows what your weaknesses are. You don’t have to hide them anymore.” No more secrets! And now you can spend your time thinking about other things, like how to use a 360 Survey to your advantage.
It offers a clear starting point for growth. One of the main purposes of a 360 Survey is as a tool for strengthening your strengths and weakening your weaknesses. The 360 Survey gives you a clear understanding of what your strengths and weaknesses are so that you can prioritize and take action towards growth.
You’re better at processing feedback. It took me five reads across several days to finally feel like I was understanding what my report said. The first time I scanned the document I felt awful. The shock and pain lessened with each reading until I finally saw the document as a bunch of words, neither good nor bad. Constructive criticism is a set of opinions that we can choose to act on, but we cannot act rationally on it without first getting some distance from it.
Nevertheless, Be Thoughtful About What You Focus On
Chances are that your sample size will be pretty small. 15/30 people responded to my survey which is a great response rate, but represent only a fraction of the people I’ve connected with in my life. This reduces the accuracy of the results.
Also, people who respond will likely be people who care about you enough to respond because there’s no incentive for a person to take the survey otherwise.
What’s the lesson here? Be thoughtful about the feedback that you decide to act on. Look for patterns, ask your collector good questions, and compare results to your control. Think about how the strengths and weaknesses highlighted by the survey fit into your goals before acting on them!
- Columbia Research Kevin Ochsner estimates that we apply 30% of the feedback we receive. You can read more about it in this HBR article.
- Questions were inspired by this Quora post written by Mike Posner’s advisor.