CPA INSIDER

How to accept feedback gracefully

Constructive criticism can further your career — if you know how to take it.
By Megan Hart

For some employees, "feedback" is a frightening word. There are many benefits, however, to learning to embrace it.

Susan Peppercorn, a Boston-based executive and career coach, said learning to accept and implement feedback can lead to added confidence and self-awareness.

"You're going to learn and grow from that experience," Peppercorn said.

Paul Arab, CPA, CGMA, an AICPA Leadership Academy graduate, has been in the accounting profession for about 10 years. For him, feedback has proved invaluable, he said.

"We're all gung-ho and raring to go when we start our careers, but there's a whole lot to learn that's not in the textbooks," said Arab, vice president of audit and advisory services at Home Federal Bank of Tennessee in Knoxville.

As part of the AICPA Leadership Academy, Arab's employees, supervisors, and colleagues took an anonymous survey about working with him. For Arab, who had always received stellar remarks during formal performance reviews, this type of 360-degree feedback helped him learn that there were areas where he could improve, he said.

"Now I make an extra effort to always try and understand a problem from the other person's perspective first," he said. "And if I truly feel that things need to be changed or the issue hasn't been resolved, I have to step back and see what positive steps I can take to help the situation without controlling it."

Arab acknowledged that accepting feedback isn't always easy. Fortunately, it's possible to make the process of receiving criticism feel more productive and less personal. Accept feedback more gracefully with these tips:

Have a plan. Receiving constructive criticism can make people feel defensive or emotional. That's why it's important to look at feedback as a learning tool, Arab said.

"Most people want to help you," he said.

To get the most from it, create a plan before you go into a meeting where you expect to receive feedback. For example, focus on listening during the session, Arab suggested. Then spend time digesting the feedback before responding.

"A little time and separation from the initial comments will go a long way," he said.

Ask questions. If you don't understand your colleague's recommendations, or if their feedback isn't specific enough, go back and ask questions, Peppercorn said. If you disagree with constructive criticism, it's also all right to bring it up with your supervisor. Just be sure the conversation has a purpose beyond fixing your bruised ego, she said.

"Have your data, know your objective, be unemotional and very clear," she said.

Having a mentor with whom you can discuss the feedback you receive can also be helpful, Peppercorn said.

Look for feedback often. Frequent feedback is something we should seek out, said Arab.

"It's a rare chance to get other people's perspective on how you handle yourself and your duties," he said.

Getting feedback just once a year during performance reviews isn't enough. Asking for feedback regularly can help open lines of communication between you and your colleagues. They'll become more comfortable giving honest feedback, and you'll become more comfortable receiving it, Arab said.

Don't forget about your strengths. The word feedback can get your heart racing, Peppercorn said, but performance discussions should be balanced.

"Feedback is really meant to help you grow, but managers may not deliver feedback in the most eloquent way," Peppercorn said.

Sometimes supervisors focus on your weaknesses during performance reviews, but it's also important to discuss your strengths. Ask your manager what he or she considers to be your assets, so you can work on building those too, Peppercorn suggested.

Written might work better. Performance discussions can be especially intimidating for introverts, who typically require more time to process information internally. If that applies to you, consider asking for written feedback.

"I think it's a valid method for most professional situations," said Ellen Bard, a British registered occupational psychologist, speaker, and consultant currently based in Bangkok, Thailand. "Though I'd also suggest in some cases where you're looking for more in-depth feedback from a specific person about, say, a big project or a presentation, that you then follow that up with a face-to-face session."

When asking for written feedback, it can be helpful to give your colleague a deadline and ask a few specific performance-related questions, Bard said.

Make changes. According to Bard, author of This Is For You: A Creative Toolkit for Better Self-Care, simply receiving feedback isn't enough.

"It's no good if you just stick it in a drawer," she said.

Bard recommended that all employees have a development plan that's updated at least quarterly. Comments received during feedback sessions should be incorporated into this plan.

Thank your colleagues. We all know feedback can be tough to take, but it can also be challenging to give, Bard said. That's why it's important to thank your colleagues for their input, even if wasn't exactly something you wanted to hear.

"Taking feedback graciously is a skill, and one that can often be looked upon favorably as a sign of emotional intelligence in the workplace," Bard said.

Offering to reciprocate can also go a long way.

"Proactively share a few positives someone did on a project and one thing they can develop after each big project you do," Bard recommended. "The discipline of giving feedback will help you when getting feedback and vice versa."

Megan Hart is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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