Don’t Respond to Feedback Like a Bunch of Baboons

I was just reading "See New Now" by Jerry de Jaager and Jim Ericson.  They have a chapter entitled The "Baboon Reflex."  The subtitle is "Fear makes animals and people do unproductive things." They go on to recount a story about baboon behavior, how something happens in their brain when they are hunting together, and somehow one of them always screws up the hunt.

Now, I know you have never worked with a bunch of baboons that screw up like this, right?  (Oh…Maybe?)  Fear, worry and bad feelings shut down our HOTS (higher order thinking skills). It shuts down creativity too. This is why you always have a great comeback three hours later – after you have had time to calm down and get to a good-feeling place again where your HOTS are intact.

What does this have to do with responding to feedback?

I’m convinced that responding to solicited feedback is an advanced communication skill.  I say advanced because it seems to be lacking in the basic skill set of many managers and leaders.  Lacking advanced communication skills can hamper great results, and can contribute to employee turnover.

In the book "First Break All the Rules" by Marcus Buckingham, he states that people joingreat companies but leave bad managers.  One of the many qualities of good managers is that they create an environment that keeps everyone using their HOTS.  They foster a safe environment where making mistakes is considered a part of learning and innovating. They make it clear it is okay to disagree and encourage discussions on differing viewpoints. They LISTEN.  They create trust because it is a SAFE environment for employees to provide feedback.

How do you become a manager that fosters an environment where your employees are in the HOTS most of the time?  There are so many ways and more blog articles to come.  But let’s start with something simple.  When you ask for feedback, make it safe for employees to give feedback.

In one experience I had, a manager e-mailed the department asking them, "How do you create an environment that fosters creativity and feedback?"   I didn’t know the manager very well, so I sent some simple ideas that would help create a safe environment.  He almost immediately responded with a critique, "that is too simplistic."

The irony here is this: He wants to create an environment that fosters creativity and feedback, and he just guaranteed he would receive no more from me.  Why? His response taught me that if I provide feedback, he would immediately critique it.  I decided that next time he asks for feedback, I will pass.

If you solicit feedback, here are some tips on responding to feedback, so as to encourage a safe environment to receive it again.

  1. Think of feedback like receiving a gift. Like any gift, you don’t accept the gift andsay, "this sucks."  Can you imagine howyou would feel?  If you ask for feedback, giving it is usually optional, isn’t it?  Begin by considering feedback a gift.  When you receive a gift, you don’t tell the gifter, "this sucks because… (whatever)."   When you criticize solicited feedback that is exactly what you are doing.
  2. Respond with "thank you."  Nobody has to give feedback.  In fact, it is easier just to

    ignore a request for feedback.  It is less work.  But when someone does take the time to provide feedback, just like a gift, a proper response is "thank you."  Or, "thank you for the feedback."  Or, "I appreciate you taking the time to provide feedback."  You get the idea.

  3. Stay curious.  Perhaps the feedback wasn’t exactly the type of feedback you were looking for.  Stay curious.  Respond with, "Thank you for your feedback.  Would you mind expanding on that and telling me a little more?  Navigating via curiosity is a coaching proficiency that brings great results.
  4. Use non-judgmental awareness.  This means that you remain charge-neutral, do not judge, don’t not try to ‘fix’ but stay curious and explore further if you want more. The ability of the mind to observe without adding layers of bias, criticism and unnecessary analysis make the awareness non-judgmental.  An example might be of watching a fish swim in an aquarium. You don’t know where it is going to swim to next and you just simply observe its motion flowing effortlessly through the water.  There are no projections of what will happen in the future because you are only observing what is happening now and nothing else.
  5. Avoid defending.  There is nothing worse than providing solicited feedback and then listening to the manager give a defense monologue.  It might start something like, "We have this because…" or "We do this because…" If you want to make a person feel unheard and unvalued, this is the way to do it. It virtually guarantees they will choose not to provide feedback again.  Create a safe space by making them feel heard by simply thanking them for the feedback.
  6. Confirm what you heard. Be sure you understand them correctly.  If a person is providing feedback about why something isn’t working for them, respond with "Just to confirm my understanding, the system does this when you try to _____________."

Thinking of feedback like a gift, and thanking a person for their solicited feedback will contribute to creating a safe environment to provide more in the future. Stay curious and use non-judgmental awareness.  Do not defend anything when receiving feedback, but make sure you understand and confirm what was said.  Keeping these things in mind creates an environment where people can stay in their HOTS, where the gift of feedback can be fostered and used for developing continuous positive change, trust and innovation.


Want to go from stressed out to streamlined?  Wishing you could spend more time actually doing the work you love?  Mia Turpel’s know-how as a business and career coach, speaker, project manager and trainer will help you do just that.  Discover how to find Your Best Work in the Your Best Work, Find It, Live It, Love it Telecourse.


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