3 traits of elite feedback receivers

Feedback is an important tool for personal improvement – and business success. The best leaders know that it’s not just about providing meaningful feedback to their teams, but importantly about seeking out and receiving feedback from others.

If feedback is given but nobody’s there to receive it, does it make a sound?

Pardon the butchering of a classic conversation starter, but it’s a line of thinking that’s helped guide our recent research around feedback. Even if you’ve put the right structures in place for giving feedback, and you have trained up your leaders to deliver it, feedback won’t lead to better performance if you don’t prepare your people to accept it – and even crave it.

We spoke to 67 high performers from around the world for our research paper Performance Management: A bold new perspective on how individuals, teams and organizations excel. What sets them apart is not just that come from outside the corporate ecosystem – whether they be musicians, chefs or athletes. They also place enormous importance on seeking out and receiving feedback – not just giving it.

3 traits that separate the best from the rest

Our research uncovered three areas where elite performers differed from those who may struggle to accept feedback in the corporate world:

1. Self-awareness. The more self-awareness a person has, the more objective they can be about their own performance. This is both internal (how you view your own values, aspirations and reactions) and external (your understanding of how others view you).

Graph 1: How research participants compare to the general leadership population

2. Accountability. Elite performers own their feedback and feel responsible for putting it into action. They know feedback must be a two-way conversation – with responsibility on both sides – to continually improve performance or overcome obstacles.

Graph 2: How research participants compare to the general leadership population

3. Resilience. Negative feedback can be tough to hear, especially if delivered in front of others. High performers have built up their tolerance to accept feedback from an early age. To grow and improve, you may need to disrupt your current ways of thinking and acting, and this can be uncomfortable. But with the right mindset, it can ultimately lead to growth.

Graph 3: How research participants compare to the general leadership population

How to start building feedback-hungry individuals

Here’s three ways you can start building your team’s capacity for receiving – and seeking out – feedback.

Weaving feedback into your fabric

It’s critical to go all-in on being a feedback-oriented organisation – and let your people know it. One of the most obvious ways to do this is to normalise feedback so that it becomes simply part of how we work around here.

Agile ways of working can provide a ready-made structure for doing this. The rhythm of sprints, retrospectives and daily stand-ups all serve to embed an instant feedback cycle into the basic way of working, so feedback becomes the norm, rather than something you spend most of the year waiting to receive in a set-piece appraisal.

The Japanese arm of a large multinational consumer brand we work with uses elements of an agile operating model to do just this – but crucially they also focus not just on the process, but also the behaviours. Before employees shift to a more agile part of the business, the company uses one of our assessment tools to understand individuals’ preferences and ability to give and receive daily feedback in an open environment. Clearly laying out expectations means no surprises for employees – and can prevent poor role fits across the organisation.

Start early

Elite performers became accustomed to receiving feedback earlier in life than corporate workers. Many of us grew up receiving one-way feedback on tests or other school assignments. But high performers in the arts, sport or military have been shaped by feedback that honed in on how their behaviour and decisions impacted those around them.

This helped them develop more self-awareness about their performance, which in turn led to them giving themselves more valuable internal feedback. The sooner organisations expose their people to this way of thinking, the better.

That’s why we’re seeing it baked into the interview process, where hiring managers are looking for examples of resilience, self-awareness and accountability in potential new hires.

More voices, more progress

It’s important to receive feedback from a diverse group of stakeholders to get a broader perspective. If constructive criticism or praise keeps coming from one outlet, the message can become diluted over time. But hearing from multiple sources helps build credibility in that feedback – which in turn encourages team members to stay tuned in.

Our instinct is to fear negative feedback – to avoid the harsh truths of being told we’re doing something wrong. And it takes work to break habits. But the elite performers in our research showed us how it can be done – by building self-awareness, accountability and resilience. To learn more about how to do that and help your team evolve into a group who not only accepts feedback, but actively seeks it, download our report Performance Management: A bold new perspective on how individuals, teams and organisations excel.