How to Embrace Feedback and Improve Your Career

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” So runs an old Buddhist proverb. But are you a willing student? Here’s how you can make yourself more coachable.

Are you uncoachable? Does the very question make you furrow your brow or stiffen your back? Are you already battening down your hatches with excuses and rationalizations? If so, then you already have your answer.

Becoming defensive when you or your work is met with criticism is a knee-jerk reaction for many of us. But unless you learn to overcome these instincts and embrace all feedback – good and bad – to improve your skills and professional approach, your career is likely to stall. After all, the most successful people are those who can use constructive criticism as a catalyst for improving themselves, not as an occasion for wallowing in self-pity. And as a recent Entrepreneur.com article recently confirmed, and as we’ve discussed before, coaching – whether administered formally, through one-on-one or group mentorship, or less formally, via feedback from others – is an important means of professional growth and development.

Fortunately, acknowledging that you have a problem with being coached is the first step towards recovery. Okay, so maybe it’s not that dire. But if you work towards transforming your attitude, thickening your skin, and welcoming opportunities for valuable coaching, you can start maximizing the benefits of coaching and mentorship.

Notice your reactions
Trish Barbato, Senior Vice President of Home Health and Business Development at Revera Inc., says that a telltale sign that someone is resistant to coaching is if he or she becomes defensive when they’re faced with constructive criticism. “If you’re making excuses, justifying [yourself] or being defensive instead of just using basic listening skills…that’s a pretty good sign you’re not going to be easy to coach,” she explains.

Be honest with yourself. If defensiveness is your go-to reaction when being told you could stand to work on something, then it’s time to start reflecting on why you’re responding in this way. Barbato suggests that you spend some time reflecting on what has happened to you in the past has programmed you to resist feedback and close your mind to helpful criticism. Honest introspection and self-analysis are tough for a lot of us, but by cultivating self-awareness you will be in a far better position to take steps towards changing your behaviour.

If defensiveness is your go-to reaction when being told you could stand to work on something, then it’s time to start reflecting on why you’re responding in this way.

“I’ve told an employer before that they need to learn to communicate more openly and connect better with employees, that employees find them distant,” recalls Barbat, “and they looked at me like I was from Mars.”

But if you’re unwilling to check your ego and critically reflect upon yourself, then even the most skilled and experienced coach will have a hard time getting through. “You have to be self-aware; it’s the only way you’re going to be more successful and move up the ladder.”

Ask for it – a lot
Many people make the mistake of simply waiting for their year-end review to hear how they’re performing from a supervisor or boss. Barbato says feedback should actually be requested at more frequent intervals. For example, if you’ve just finished a project or assignment, you should use the opportunity to ask your boss how you fared, and whether the end product met their wishes and expectations. If they’re open to it, you can segue this into a conversation about how you’re doing overall, and what you can work on.  If you’re starting out at a new company, don’t wait too long before asking a supervisor how you’re doing, and whether you’re fitting into the company culture.

Another thing to be aware of is making sure you’re not always asking the same person for feedback again and again. Diversify your critics.  Remember that you can always ask for feedback from people other than your supervisor or boss. For example, consider soliciting constructive criticism from team members, indirect supervisors, or even friends and family members. Assure them that you appreciate honesty, and that you can take it (and then actually take it).

Once you get used to regularly asking for feedback, you will start to notice bad habits that have set in, and be able to come up with solutions. “So people perceive me as being stubborn? How can I work on that? Be more open to others’ suggestions?” The regular exposure to critique will also help to take the sting out of any particular criticism; before you know it, you’ll realize you’ve become one of those enviable people with seriously thick skin.

But if you’re unwilling to check your ego and critically reflect upon yourself, then even the most skilled and experienced coach will have a hard time getting through.

And when you do have that annual review with the boss? Don’t waste it.  “Don’t be afraid of it, or rush through it,” Barbato stresses. “Come prepared with tons of questions for your boss and use it as an opportunity to learn more. This may be the only intimate conversation you have with your boss all year. Use the time.”

Don’t forget to eventually check back with the person who volunteered their feedback. Ask them whether they’ve noticed any improvements, or if they have any further suggestions.

Stop, breathe, listen
Sometimes we invite criticism upon ourselves; other times, it’s unsolicited. In either case, it can be hard not to get defensive – even though that instinctive reaction can close the door to self-improvement and growth.

It’s important, then, that you learn to master your emotions so that you’re better able to receive criticism. A particularly effective technique for managing your response to feedback is to pause and breathe, and refrain from reacting. This will give you time to absorb the information, as well as swallow any feelings of anger or frustration, so that you don’t end up saying something that you’ll regret.

Remember that you can always ask for feedback from people other than your supervisor or boss.

“Allow yourself some time to just digest [the feedback] so you can relax into what you heard,” Barbato advises. “Maybe it’s valid and maybe it’s not, but give yourself time to absorb it, instead of just deflecting it.”

Once you’ve taken this moment, respond simply and politely. Saying something like, “I appreciate your telling me that, and will definitely take it into consideration.” Then go think about it some more, and assess whether it’s legitimate.

View feedback as a gift
To shift your attitude about criticism, you’re going to have to regard it as something positive – precious, even. “If you’re giving someone feedback, it’s a gift, and the same goes for it you’re receiving it,” says Barbato.

Useful criticism is hard to come by, so you should value and cherish its availability, whenever you’re fortunate enough to happen upon it. “There aren’t many times in our lives that people have the courage to tell us what they really think,” Barbato observes. But when they are actually brave enough to be completely honest with us, “we should be…listening. It’s an opportunity to grow, to see our blind spots.”

As Barbato points out, most of us have no trouble at all identifying the weaknesses and limitations of others: our co-workers and supervisors, our spouses and friends. Yet we struggle to see our own failings.  So consider it a favour when someone points you in the right direction or helps you identify something you need to work on.

Useful criticism is hard to come by, so you should value and cherish its availability, whenever you’re fortunate enough to happen upon it.

Consider your resources
If you feel that the feedback you’re receiving from friends, co-workers, and employers isn’t quite enough, you’re not without options. Consider asking a supervisor or HR person about the prospect of being set up with a professional mentor; many companies have programs that will facilitate such relationships.

If you have someone in mind who you admire, even if they don’t work in your firm or in the exact same industry, approach them and ask if they might be willing to work with you on your professional development. “You can seek a mentoring relationship with someone who’s not in your direct team,” Barbato says. “There’s a huge number of people we’re interconnected with; it just takes courage to reach out to people.”

Hearing negative things about yourself is never easy, but by cultivating an inner awareness and learning to make constructive criticism a part of your regular work life, you will become desensitized to the hurt and learn to use it to your advantage.

Let us know what you think! At Clarity Recruitment, we’re always interested in hearing from accounting and finance professionals like yourselves, who are ready for new, exciting opportunities that can take their careers to the next level. And be sure to follow us on Twitter (@clarityrecruits) and connect with us on Facebook for more great tips and advice!