Giving and Receiving Feedback: A Skill for Grad School and Life

Learning how to give effective feedback to colleagues, classmates, and even professors as well as receive feedback yourself is a skill that takes practice, nurturing, an open mind, and a growth mindset. After many years in what some would consider a competitive business culture, I have learned how to use the feedback I receive to fuel my development and grow as an employee, and I hope that what I have learned will help you in library school and beyond. As part of my Directed Fieldwork this past summer one of my projects for the corporate library I worked in was to create a “Feedback Reading List” for the company’s library portal that offered resources for employees to learn how to give, ask for, and receive specific and honest feedback to promote meaningful growth.

Some of the key findings that I discovered in my research were that feedback is more effective when asked for rather than unsolicited; feedback is perceived differently in different countries and in different cultures; women are less likely to receive specific, business-outcome related feedback than men; and all employees need to have some level of psychological safety at work in order to provide feedback to their manager. In addition, the word “feedback” tends to elicit negative reactions and even fear in many people when they are asked to give feedback (not wanting to cause hurt feelings) and when they receive feedback (feelings of defense, frustration, and strong emotions). So, what can we do to help ourselves and our colleagues when it comes to feedback and to be armed with skills to enter the workforce where our emotions and opinions may not be as “protected” as they are in graduate school? Read on for tips and recommended resources!

One of the reasons receiving feedback is so difficult is because it sits at the intersection of the human desire to improve and learn while at the same time wanting to be accepted just as we are right now. In Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone offer a framework and tools for helping to receive feedback, evaluations, off-hand comments, and even unsolicited advice with curiosity and grace. The most useful piece of advice from this resource for me was working to manage the emotional response feedback triggers in me so that I am able to take in what the other person is telling me. Learning how to engage in a conversation skillfully with someone who is offering feedback is crucial and can lead to new ways of seeing yourself. At work, I actively try to seek out feedback from my manager and my colleagues so that feedback becomes something that is sought after and not just endured. This has led to a more open relationship and shows people that coming to me with good or negative feedback will be met with maturity and openness. (Trust me it works!)

The Harvard Business Review also contains a plethora of articles related to feedback and your school library probably has a subscription that you can use for access to articles. In Peter Bregman’s 2019 article 13 Ways We Justify, Rationalize, or Ignore Negative Feedback he calls out common ways we have probably all turned on our defenses against feedback we have received including playing the victim, try to deny we are doing something wrong, deflect, and even joke about our actions (“I never knew I was such a jerk!”). Another helpful read was Joseph Grenny’s 2015 article The Key to Giving and Receiving Negative Feedback, which emphasizes ensuring you work in an environment where you experience psychological safety on a daily basis (I understand this is easier said than done of course as not everyone has this luxury). The principles for helping yourself and others feel ready to give and receive feedback include: when offering feedback get your intention right before you open your mouth; ask permission before giving feedback; share intent before content and when you are the one receiving the feedback get yourself ready before opening your ears (you want to hear the truth, not simply validation), hold your boundaries until you are ready and if you can, try and be curious (the best inoculation against defensiveness).

Finally, O’Reilly Learning also has a lot of great resources on feedback if you have access to its portal through your school’s library. My favorite being The Power of Feedback by Joseph R. Folkman and John H. Jack Zenger (you can also find this book at your local library or at Bookshop). The purpose of this book is to help you accept, prioritize, plan for, and change as a result of the feedback you receive. When you learn how to accept feedback at work or at school or even from a close friend you will undoubtedly be better for it and it may even lead to a promotion, increased confidence for an interview, and improve a relationship with someone in your life.

What is the best feedback you have ever received and how did it help you?

By Erika Whinihan, third year online MLIS student, Information School, University of Washington (erikaw9@uw.edu)

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