How old were you when you first watched The Jungle Book? Do you remember how it made you feel? Did you dance along with Mowgli and Baloo, and sneer every time Shere Khan came on? No? — I guess it’s just me, then. The timeless story has been told and retold a myriad times. Its 2016 film adaptation grossed close to a billion US dollars. The Jungle Book is a big deal!
Rudyard Kipling, the genius behind it, is a big deal himself. Beyond his success with the Jungle Book, he is also a world-renowned poet. I was introduced to the potency and power of his words when, a few weeks ago, a friend shared his most famous piece with me. It’s called “If” and you should listen to it.
Now, consider this — an editor once threw away his work, rejecting it with this simple note:
“I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”
That must have hurt. When I came across this line in his biography, I paused. This man, now acknowledged as one of the greatest poets ever, was told he didn’t have what it takes. Not just that he’d made a few errors in his work — that he couldn’t even use the English language. Shocking! But not really.
Negative feedback is a reality we all have to face.
We all give and receive feedback. In my attempt to understand the different forms of feedback (I took my time and often got distracted by jolly Tik Tok-ers), I stumbled upon two major forms of feedback:
1. Constructive feedback
This form of feedback emphasizes the possibility of improvement, and expresses an appreciation of the effort invested. It may be in the form of praise or it could involve acknowledgment of the effort invested while pointing out that there is still room for improvement.
Appreciation alone comes off as praise, yet when accompanied with areas of improvement, ignites that extra oomph of desire to do better. It looks something like this:
Tom, your designs were valuable accomplishments this quarter. I know you didn’t achieve every goal you set, and that’s okay — it’s great to see you striving for more. But I recognize that you’re falling short on other non-design related assignments. I propose you use this opportunity to rethink your goals moving forward.
How does feedback like this make you feel? It’s complete in the sense that it has not only pointed out his areas of improvement but also his strengths. It expresses what you’re already good at and what you need to improve.
“Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.” – Yehuda Berg
2. Negative feedback
This form of feedback simply expresses dissatisfaction. The information shared usually highlights the recipient’s character as the reason for poor performance. It’s usually in the form of another person’s interpretations on your actions or work. So rather than stating observations (i.e. what is seen to occur), it focuses on the analysis or opinion of what occurred.
The only difference between these forms of feedback is that while the former points out areas of strength and improvement, the latter simply highlights shortcomings. So, while constructive feedback offers positive reinforcement (a.k.a. a tap on the shoulder) for work well done, negative feedback fails to highlight or acknowledge strengths. It simply dwells on failures and weaknesses. It could look like this:
Tom, when you gave your presentation this morning, you failed to make significant contributions on the subject. I have noticed that this has also been the case for other projects as well. Perhaps, you are just not cut out for this.
I don’t know about Tom, but I would feel discouraged after this. I mean essentially, they have just pointed out my shortcomings in a way that says, “Hey, you’re really bad at this and there’s nothing you can do about it”.
So how do we get better at receiving feedback?
We exist in a world where people are infatuated with expressing their opinions regardless of impact. We must learn to filter out the non-essential chunks of information.
Although learning to give constructive feedback is important, it is not half as significant as acquiring the skills to receive feedback regardless of how it is expressed. Ultimately, each of us is responsible for ensuring we have a positive reaction— or even no reaction — to other people’s opinions. It is essential that we subject other people’s judgment to our own scrutiny. Otherwise, we risk being gullible sponges that absorb everything. And we wouldn’t want that now, would we?
Why do people struggle with receiving feedback?
Essentially, feedback tells us how other people view what we do. It is simply a reflection of your performance expressed by others. Most of us do not struggle with receiving praise or appreciation, in fact we’re usually ecstatic about it. It is when other people point out our shortcomings that we lose our balance. But why is that?
We tend to identify who we are based on what we do, no? So, if people think we’re not doing great we perceive this as a reflection of who we are. So basically, we struggle with receiving feedback because we tend to take it personally rather than impersonally.
In How to Cultivate a Gentle Inner Voice, I highlighted the fact that we tend to identify ourselves using external markers: things like our jobs, our social standing, or how others perceive us. Although none of these reflect who we truly are.
In order to be great at receiving feedback, we need to learn to separate our identity from the feedback we receive. We need to understand that our ability to deliver great work — or fall short in certain areas — does not really reflect who we are.
All these things that we are evaluated on are things we can learn, and we can get better at with time and experience. When we fail to understand this, we set ourselves up to fail. Must you put yourself down simply because your shortcomings surface and other people point them out? Wouldn’t it be better to learn to acknowledge them and simply work on being better? I pick the latter and I hope you do too!
How to receive feedback using the growth mindset approach.
Carol Dweck, in her insightful Mindset: The New Psychology of Success shares her views on how our mindset shapes our personalities. The type of mindset you have was developed from an early age and it tends to influence your behaviour and relationship with success and failure. Dweck points out that an individual’s mindset is what ultimately determines their capacity for happiness. While some individuals have adopted what she calls the fixed mindset, others embrace a growth mindset.
An individual with a “fixed mindset” views his/her character, intelligence, and creative ability as non-transformative. These individuals believe that their abilities can’t change in any meaningful way. These individuals believe striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs manifests a sense of being smart or skilled.
Individuals with a “growth mindset,” on the other hand, embrace their challenges and view failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as an opportunity for growth. Shortcomings are opportunities for stretching the limits of their existing abilities.
“Some people see a wall and assume that’s the end of their journey. Others see it, and decide that it’s just the beginning.”– Angeline Trevena
While the former believes that their intelligence, skills and personalities are carved in stone, the latter does not view these traits as simply a hand you’re dealt with and have to live with but rather as tools for development. Individuals with a growth mindset believe that strong qualities can be cultivated through effort. That growth is possible through application and experience.
“In a growth mindset, challenges are exciting rather than threatening. So rather than thinking, oh, I’m going to reveal my weaknesses, you say, wow, here’s a chance to grow.”
— Carol Dweck
This is the single most important outlook on our shortcomings. In order to move forward, we need to acknowledge the fact that there is room for improvement. So, Tom, I hope when you finish reading this, you have a fresh outlook on your current predicament.
You know what, Tom? — here’s a little Jungle Book treat for you for reading this all the way through: ♪♪♫ “Look for the Bare Necessities.” ♫♪♪