Ample advice exists for managers to improve on how they deliver feedback. Less common is coaching on how to be better at receiving feedback. Rebekah Brown, CPA, director of development for the Maryland Association of CPAs and the Business Learning Institute, shares insight on receiving feedback, a topic she spoke about in June at AICPA ENGAGE.
What you’ll learn from this episode:
- Explanation of three types of feedback highlighted in the book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well.
- The example of a Mississippi CPA firm that Brown singles out for having “phenomenal” culture.
- Why we should learn more about our individual feedback “blind spots.”
- How we can help ourselves with managers by having upfront conversations related to feedback.
- How technology has changed our expectations about feedback.
- What a Beyoncé meme can teach us about how we interact with others.
- Why we should respect managers who deliver negative feedback.
Play the episode below:
To comment on this podcast or to suggest an idea for another podcast, contact Neil Amato, a JofA senior editor, at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.
Neil Amato: This is Neil Amato with the Journal of Accountancy, joined today on the podcast by Rebekah Brown, director of development of the Maryland Association of CPAs and the Business Learning Institute. Rebekah, thank you for being here.
Rebekah Brown: Thank you for having me, Neil. I’m excited.
Amato: The topic of feedback, now Simon Sinek, to set the stage, Simon Sinek has just spoken at ENGAGE and I’m calling him the undercard to this conversation. He was in a famous boxing arena so it makes sense.
Brown: Oh, definitely.
Amato: He helped set the stage for you to talk about feedback. He mentioned feedback, we’re going to talk about feedback, because obviously it’s a big topic if he is kind of setting the stage for you to talk about it. Why is feedback important to you?
Brown: You know, I think it’s critical and not just because I’m a Millennial who kind of has that stereotype of needing constant feedback. I am a Millennial, I will own that, I’m proud of that, but I think it’s critical for everyone, that’s how we develop; that’s how we grow. That’s how we learn, that trial and error and getting that feedback from others to see where we can improve and how we can develop and grow. It really comes back to growth. You can’t grow without getting that feedback from others.
Amato: So you personally, you mentioned you’re a Millennial so feedback is important, but is there a certain way you like to receive feedback or give feedback?
Brown: Yeah, it’s interesting. So the session that I did here at ENGAGE was really based on a book called Thanks for the Feedback by Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone. It’s a phenomenal book, and it really taught me that there’s more than just the word feedback. There’s a lot that goes into that and so there’s really three types of feedback: appreciation, coaching, and evaluation. What I’ve found is that we all need all of them, like there’s nobody that doesn’t want to be appreciated, right, or doesn’t need coaching or evaluation feedback. And for me I’ve found that I need that appreciation in a higher degree than maybe other people. Everybody needs all three in different degrees and I realized this before but it came in a different way to me yesterday.
So I spoke out on unconscious bias with Lindsay Stevenson, phenomenal opportunity to speak with her, she’s amazing, and we were on the stage and the lights were really, really bright. You could not see anyone in the audience. And I struggled with my presentation in a way that I haven’t struggled before, and I felt terrible about how it went. People came up to me afterwards and said, “Oh no, it went really well,” but I didn’t have that visual body language feedback from the audience. I realized I needed that like immediately seeing that they are understanding or appreciating or interacting with them was super important to me. And then my second session wasn’t in that kind of context and went amazing; I felt great about it. I was not on a stage. [It] was more workshop-y. There were tables, there was no stage, the lights were on, there was no camera, not that I’m scared of the camera, but the camera makes it so that they have to have the bright lights on you, and yeah, it just felt more natural to me. So having that instant feedback of people’s body language as a speaker, oh my gosh, it’s so critical.
Amato: Do people have to grow into receiving feedback or is it something they naturally — it’s probably not something they naturally do well.
Brown: It’s not, and it’s not something that we teach people either. I think that’s what the authors of the book found is that they were doing consulting around difficult conversations, they have a book called that as well, and so they were doing this consulting around that and they found that the most difficult conversations were often about feedback and so they thought, “OK, well, we need to teach people how to give feedback because it’s the giver’s fault. They’re doing it poorly. That will solve everything,” and it didn’t. And what they’ve found is that the receiver of the feedback is really the one in control. They’re the ones deciding whether they act on the feedback, whether they do anything about it, whether they react in the moment, the emotions, the quality of the feedback and the depth as to your use of it in making you grow from that, learning from that feedback is all about being able to [remain] comfortable while you’re receiving it and inherently feedback conversations are uncomfortable. Whether they’re good or bad, it’s uncomfortable.
Amato: Yeah, pretty much no one goes into a meeting knowing that it’s a review situation being totally comfortable.
Brown: No, it’s just not a natural thing to want, but if you can get good at receiving it, if you can get good about being uncomfortable, and actually go seek out those feedback, those are the people that are able to grow and advance into leadership positions because they’re more self-aware than other people. That’s like the baseline skill, I think, in being a leader.
Amato: So say you get good at receiving feedback. You’re working in a certain role with a certain manager, you feel good about it, you kind of understand each other’s communication styles, and then something changes, either that person leaves or you change roles, and you have to like recoach yourself on how to receive feedback from someone who delivers it in a different way, I guess.
Brown: Yeah, that’s absolutely true and I think that you can help yourself by having that conversation up front with the person. There’s no reason why we have to just take what comes at us. We can learn from that but you can have a conversation with someone saying, “We are both in this together, so for us to do that the best way, here’s how I best receive feedback. And, oh, by the way, even though you are my manager, how do you best receive feedback, too, because you getting feedback from me is just as important in us succeeding in this relationship and in this organization and in this team than me getting feedback about how I can improve.”
Amato: I had an interesting conversation on another podcast coming soon with Misty Geer. I don’t know if you know Misty Geer —
Brown: I don’t.
Amato: But she is a CPA in Louisiana, and she talked about how she set some expectations with her employees on, “OK, this is how I’m going to deliver feedback, but I need to hear from you. You need to be able to come to me with anything. As long as you’re not disrespectful or inappropriate or whatever, I can take the feedback. Those are my ground rules but you need to be able to do it, you need to feel open to talk about it.” So it’s definitely a two-way street on it, on the receiving and the giving and the styles, and I guess a good manager will kind of know that, OK, employee A wants feedback this way but employee B, totally different. So I guess that’s a sign of a good manager is really getting to know those people and how they want their feedback.
Brown: Yeah, having that conversation. It’s not a conversation that we set up in the HR process or anything like that but it should be. That’s what the book really taught me and actually I got introduced to the book Thanks for the Feedback by Horne, a firm in Mississippi. They have a phenomenal culture around feedback because of what they’ve learned in the book and implemented. And it just creates a culture of being able to have that common language about we’re all in this together, we all want to grow and succeed, and so here’s how we’re going to help each other do that best. And that looks different for different people. We’re all individuals and so we tend to give feedback how we like to receive it but that often is not the case or the best use of that feedback. It’s how you can individually help someone in a different way because we’re all different.
Amato: Do you think, though, that we’re similar in that maybe we all like feedback as long as it’s good like, “Hey, you’re doing a great job,” and then if it’s not, it’s like, “I don’t like feedback”?
Brown: Yeah, good feedback is always easier. I know there’s some people even that don’t like appreciation feedback because it makes them uncomfortable too, right? So you think of the people, and I’m one of them and then I laugh at myself because I do it for a living sometimes, is speaking. I don’t want to be the center of attention the majority of the time. I like to kind of be in the back; that’s where I’m comfortable. So I think some people, yes, good feedback is always better than negative feedback, at least in the emotions that would come up as a result of that, but there’s some people that just don’t want feedback at all because it’s scary. It’s putting them on the spot.
Amato: Has technology changed our expectations of feedback?
Brown: Yes, I believe so. Well, and there’s a couple of reasons. Simon Sinek just talked about social media. Social media is not inherently bad. It connects people, there’s a lot of positive things to it, but it has created [an] instantaneous kind of feedback loop. It’s giving people a taste of that, getting that instant response, and that just isn’t always the most effective or efficient or even possible in the workplace especially, just the way work happens. And so if you set the expectation up, if social media has set the expectation up that you’re going to get that constant feedback, you’re going to be really disappointed when you go into the workplace and you get one annual review a year, right? That’s not the ideal, it should be more frequent than that, but it’s not going to be the instant social media as well.
I also think technology has separated us from having feedback conversations face-to-face, which takes a whole lot of the communication out of the conversation. So you look at a diagram of communication only 7% of communication is actual verbal, is the words that you say, 56% of it is your body language, 38% — I hope I did that math right, it might be 37 now that I’m thinking of it — is the tone of your voice. And so if you’re giving feedback through an instant message or even review points in a workpaper, through an email, text message, even a phone conversation, you’re missing a lot of communication there. And so you have the risk of being interpreted incorrectly, and it’s just not the best format for feedback. Feedback really should be face-to-face. So I think some technology has impeded that, but also there’s other new technologies, like Zoom calls or videoconferencing, where you can be all over the world and you can see that body language and hear that tone and really have a rich conversation and not have to be in the same room as each other.
Amato: That’s a good point on the Zoom and especially as people have remote staffs or they’re using more contractors, a gig economy, and maybe the person doesn’t work there, you have to have those video tools. What are some of the ways that people give feedback or receive feedback and yet they don’t actually realize they’re doing it based on the body language part you mentioned earlier?
Brown: Yeah, definitely. The book talks about these blind spots we all have and so one of them being our body language and our facial expressions. Some people’s faces their resting face looks like they’re mad at you. Everybody’s met somebody like that. And so to just be self-aware if you’re the person getting the feedback or you’re speaking and you see somebody staring at you, you have to keep in your mind maybe that’s just their face. So there’s that and then if you’re the person that might realize that that is your natural kind of body language or face or you tend to slouch or whatever just being aware of people watching you. There’s the meme that went viral with Beyoncé and Jay-Z, I think, last week. They’re courtside at an NBA game, and the wife of the owner of the team is leaning over Beyoncé having a conversation with Jay-Z. So this picture went viral because Beyoncé looks completely annoyed at this woman. And I don’t know Beyoncé personally, but I would say that she probably isn’t as annoyed as she looks. It probably caught her at a bad moment but now this has gone viral and there’s all these people attacking this poor woman for talking to Jay-Z; it’s like this crazy thing.
So you never know who’s watching, you never know what your body language, especially your facial expression because you can’t see your own face, is communicating to people around you. So as you walk into meetings especially or conferences or you know that people are seeing you, just be aware of opening your eyes a little bit more, smiling, engaging, both with your thoughts and really your presence in the room so that people see that you’re engaged. It’s hard, it sounds silly, but it can have kind of devastating effects that you don’t even realize.
Amato: Rebekah Brown, who set what is probably a first for the Journal of Accountancy podcast, our first Beyoncé reference on the podcast. So where I wanted to go also with social media, whether it’s Facebook or Twitter, Facebook likes or Twitter retweets or what I like to call with my high school daughter the Instagram effect, there’s like a comparison of, how many likes did I get. And so is that kind of warping people’s sense of what feedback should be? I mean it’s definitely not in person.
Brown: That’s true; it’s definitely not in person. I think it has. I think that both that wanting of that instant response that you can get on social media as well as, like Simon talked about, that dopamine effect. It’s addictive. So if we’re used to getting that positive reinforcement constantly, it’s hard when you go into the workplace and that’s not there. And that’s on top of people like myself that just need that appreciation feedback. So I’m somebody, I’m a Type 6 on the enneagram if people are really into that, I find those things fascinating, but I’m somebody that is characteristic of a worrier, anxiety. That’s my go-to, my default. And so for me, silence is just an invitation to worry that I’ve done something wrong. It’s not a keep on chugging, no news is good news. That’s not the case for me. So I don’t know where I was going with that, but feedback, the social media has had that aspect in wanting that instant kind of response of something.
Amato: And you reeled it in pretty well I thought really, for thinking you had lost your train of thought. In my first stint as a manager, and it’s funny you mentioned silence, that silence. Where I’m going with that — in my first stint I was told there’s positive feedback, negative feedback, and no feedback and by far the worst is no feedback. I think that’s more true — I mean when I was a manager, Facebook was a fairly new platform so I’ll date myself a little bit. So what do you think about that?
Brown: Yeah, no, I totally agree. By far the worst would be to get no feedback at all. Then you’re making up worst-case scenarios if you’re me, at least. I can go to that worst-case scenario pretty fast. When getting negative feedback, the person that is giving you that feedback cares enough to give you that feedback so that you can improve and they’re going outside of their comfort zone to have that conversation with you so you have to respect that and honor that because they’re showing care. Indifference is the worst. That’s when they don’t care at all to share that.
Amato: How can finance professionals or other professionals for that matter be better at receiving feedback to really apply it to doing their jobs better?
Brown: I think just being more self-aware I think is like the first thing I think of. I think that’s the key. Simon talked about the No. 1 skill being empathy and that’s being able to understand others. But I think I always use the analogy of an airplane. You put your oxygen mask on before assisting others. I think we tend to promote leaders that aren’t self-aware. So, if you’re not self-aware you’re not able to receive feedback while — if you don’t know where the emotions or the feelings that you might be having towards someone or the feedback or how this might be threatening what you think is your identity — feedback can be devastating instead of an invitation for growth or opportunity. You see it as failure and that’s where you kind of go into whether you have that growth mindset of I can always learn and improve and grow and that’s a healthy place to be or that fixed mindset where you feel disruption is coming at you and you’re being attacked and that’s not a place for growth.
Simon talked about that too, he’s just set me up really well, about that when you’re defending the old business model, now this is in business, but even personally if you’re defending something, you’re already at kind of the disadvantage. You have to be seeing how you can be disrupted. Looking beyond the defensive position is not where you’re going to win. You have to be willing to hear from others and take that into effect that you don’t have to act on that feedback, too. You can be able to remain comfortable with getting negative feedback and then after thinking about it and maybe checking with some others, decide to completely throw that feedback out; you don’t have to act on it. You’re the one in control, right? But if you don’t take the time to think about what that feedback is, check in with a friend to make sure it’s accurate, really explore and be that self-aware about it, then you’re really just missing out on a great growth opportunity.
Amato: Thank you so much for being on the podcast.
Brown: You’re welcome. Thanks so much, Neil.