Research & Insights


Feedback is a Gift

How to Receive Criticism with Grace and Gratitude (January 6, 2015)

For many January means the end of the holiday season. For working professionals, the first month of the year may also mean it is the start of annual review season. Feedback is a Gift: How to Receive Criticism with Grace and Gratitude

Meeting with the boss and receiving a performance rating is not everyone’s idea of a festive occasion. In reality, not all managers are great at conducting reviews. Even when your boss is skilled, you may dislike being under the microscope or feel uncomfortable having to describe what you accomplished in the last year. While we may not look forward to performance reviews, I believe we can all gain something of value from them if we are willing to accept feedback the same way we accepted our holiday presents—with gratitude and grace.

About 10 years ago, I read this quote from author and coach Marshall Goldsmith:

“Feedback is a gift that only others can give.”

This short saying is something I have come back to scores of times. On one level, it reminds me to be grateful for any feedback. But when I really stop and think, this quote also reminds me how to receive feedback. In other words, it helps me pay attention to both my frame of mind and my actions―both of which greatly influence how negative or positive the experience is for both me and the feedback giver.

Think about the people you have given gifts to over the holidays. You can probably think of people who opened a gift and immediately asked for the receipt, or those who responded with, “A sweater? Too bad I’m allergic to wool.”

On the other hand, you may have been fortunate enough to experience good receivers. In my family it was my youngest brother. No matter what present he received he responded with enthusiasm and genuine glee. A shirt? “Wow, I needed this; I have an interview next week!” A book of puzzles? “This will be awesome for long rides on the metro!” The key here isn’t that people picked out good gifts for my brother. It’s that he knew how to open a present and respond in a way that made everyone smile. And guess what? We all loved giving my brother gifts.

At work, I believe we should strive to be the kind of person others want to give the gift of feedback to. While it’s tough to receive criticism or hear you are missing the mark, isn’t it better to know and have the chance to change? Even when you disagree with the feedback, you are still receiving a gift in that a particular behavior or habit will no longer be a blind spot for you.

I remember the first person who had the courage to tell me that my enthusiasm was interfering with my being perceived as knowledgeable. Thank you. I remember the colleague who told me that when I call on people on conference calls it can embarrass them and make them feel put on the spot. Thank you. Just before the break, a colleague told me that a document I had drafted was very confusing and hard to follow. Ouch. And thank you.

Of course it’s not easy to hear criticism. I’ll admit to pinching my hands under the table to stop myself from arguing. I’ll admit to arguing when I shouldn’t have. And yes, I’ll admit to brushing off feedback more than I should have. At the same time, with 10 years of practice, I am getting better, and I imagine that in 10 more years, I’ll be better yet. So, here is my advice for receiving feedback with grace and gratitude:

  1. Look the feedback giver in the eye.
  2. Listen.
  3. Say thank you.
  4. Don’t try to defend or explain your behavior or mistakes. (This one is the hardest for me!)
  5. Ask for suggestions or advice on what you could do differently next time.
  6. Say thank you again.

You have the choice of whether or not to act on the feedback you receive. I’m not saying you have to agree with everything you hear. But if you shut down feedback by acting defensive, getting upset or going on the offensive, you will probably stop receiving the gift of feedback that lets you know how you are perceived and how you can be more effective.

Interested in reading more about asking for and receiving feedback? Check out these recommended books:

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There
What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

By Marshal Goldsmith


Lean In
Lean In

By Sheryl Sandberg

About the Author
Wendy Mack

Wendy Mack

Wendy Mack served as Director of Consulting Services for Wilson Learning Corporation. Wendy led the team that is responsible for diagnosing client needs and designing comprehensive solutions that result in sustained behavior change and performance improvement. Wendy’s work blended her expertise in learning and development with her extensive knowledge of human performance technology, change management, and communication. She was a popular speaker at national conferences and client events and has coauthored three books on the topics of learning, leadership, and change.

Read more by Wendy Mack