It can be hard to give and receive feedback. It seems as though experience can actually make it more difficult to receive feedback. People may be reluctant to offer it; the experienced person may not look for it. I recently had to do a challenging activity and did my own self-assessment of how it went. It clashed, as it sometimes does, with the feedback I was getting. Sometimes, you need to really clear the thicket to get to allow yourself to grow.

Historically, I struggle at receiving feedback. Sometimes it’s due to imposter syndrome. Sometimes it’s a cognitive bias, like self-serving bias or confirmation bias .

“You need to learn to accept a compliment.”

That was feedback I received when I was a teenager working in a law firm. I started in law firms on the errands and photocopying end of the operation and was fortunate to work for people who appreciated my contribution. I’ve never forgotten the advice because it can be hard to take a compliment.

I noticed this when one of our kids used the same deflection that I did at the same age when I received positive feedback. As we’re developing our self-esteem, I think it can be difficult to be confident enough in ourselves to accept someone else’s recognition.

In that miraculous way our mind works, I still run the numbers when someone gives me a compliment. Angle? Self-interest? Known to be truthful? Is there something that makes me wonder whether the compliment is deserved? But in that split second, although I am sometimes aware of needing to get myself to say it, the answer is the same:

Thank you.

That’s it. I try not to sound entitled to the praise but just to take it at face value. No deflection, just appreciation. I can analyze it later if I feel like it.

Understand Your Soil

I like to garden so long as, once I plant something, it pretty much takes care of itself. To that end, I do not plant something that doesn’t belong. If the soil is acidic, then I plant something that can go in that (like a pine tree). If I’ve got a shady patch, I’m not going to nurse something that needs full sun.

The same goes for my own self-assessment. Just because I receive feedback that conflicts with my own assessment doesn’t mean the feedback is incorrect. Well-meant feedback contains information we can use to improve. But we need to realize that what we are assessing and what the person giving us feedback is assessing may not be the same thing.

It can help – when giving others feedback – to realize that they may be processing it in the same way. Your feedback may be based on criteria that the other person doesn’t value or hadn’t considered. Their reaction to your feedback may reflect that.

This whole post came about because I read about how startup founds can confuse their ego and their gut instinct and destroy their companies. Experience can distort your view and decision-making. Inexperience can make it hard to know whether the feedback you are getting is something you can build on. You may think you’re good at something that you’re not if feedback is puffery. You may think you’re not good at something if you don’t feel confident about yourself even with positive feedback.

On the other end, gained experience may mean you’re assessing feedback too narrowly. My recent activity was a live video interview on a national media platform. After it was over, my assessment focused on my performance. I felt like there were things I could have done better.

But, as the feedback I received showed, my measurements were in the weeds. I was looking at specific turns of phrase, pauses taken or missed, breathing. I do a lot of public speaking – and in the past 18 months have done a lot of media interviews – so experience changes what I’m assessing. You can always do better. So a self-assessment should always find opportunities for improvement, if only to focus on maintaining consistent expertise.

The feedback was more positive than my self-assessment. That’s because the audience had a different set of criteria than I did for feedback. They were looking at the overall outcome, and were contrasting it with others or their own perception of the expertise required. Combined, my-self assessment on where to improve will make me better the next time, because it’s reinforced by an overall positive result.

Let Things Grow

One way I know I’ve turned a corner as a manager is when I’m getting feedback from my staff. I have been given and participated in some 360 interviews. I’m not a huge fan of the employee engagement market and I haven’t found 360s useful. They pull from a small pool who may not really know you well enough to review your abilities. I’d rather just focus on keeping employees engaged and one of the best ways is to do it one-on-one.

The obvious problem with that is trust. That takes time to build and even when people trust you, they may not think to give verbal feedback. Unless it’s something you can act on, they may be worried about being seen as a keener, either by their manager or their peers.

Relationships are two-way. The proverbial open door is vital. But you’ve got to build the foundation for people to use the door. My go-to for feedback from my staff is the same as my response to compliments:

Thank you.”

It hasn’t been lost on me how much of leadership and management is free and easy to do. It’s the making sure we do it – saying “thank you” rather than being too busy and missing the moment – that’s the hard part. Fortunately, like so much in life, it’s habit forming. It still needs to be authentic but there’s no reason to be parsimonious about providing feedback.

I’m particularly appreciative of feedback from staff. They are taking a greater risk than a peer or manager or outside-work-friend. Staff can be sensitive to crossing a line. I’ve received feedback from personal email accounts rather than work ones. I’ve had people come into my office for small chat that turns to a more important reason that they needed to work up to.

When feedback comes your way, take it onboard. It may be unexpected and challenge your own assessment of the state of things. Again, the gardening analogy: sometimes something will grow in your garden that you didn’t plant. Why not leave it to grow? Feedback from your staff is just as multi-faceted as feedback from anyone else.

Listen to that feedback both for what’s working or not, but also for the details of the delivery. Whether something is working or not can be hard to detect sometimes, despite our best efforts. But what else: is there a misunderstanding to fix? is there an opportunity for recognition? is there someone to involve (communication, flex a new skill) the next time?

It takes work. You have to show yourself to your staff and others as being open to feedback. Even when it conflicts with your own self-assessment – perhaps especially so if it’s in an area where you have or are gaining expertise – look for what causes the dissonance. It may help you to get a broader picture of your growth, and opportunities for further improvement.