Thanks for the Feedback with Sheila Heen


Every year, corporations spend millions of dollars in training their managers how to give feedback to their employees, but it is the receiver who is in charge in any feedback situation. The problem isn’t that companies don’t give their employees enough feedback; it is that companies don’t know how to receive feedback.

What is feedback? Feedback is all of the information out there about you. It is your relationship with the world and the world’s relationship with you. The mirror offers us feedback on what we look like at the moment. Our Facebook feeds offer us feedback on our interests and interactions. And the church gossip who is talking about us behind out back is offering a kind of feedback as well.

According to Sheila Heen, there are two basic human needs:

  • The need to learn and grow.
  • The need to feel accepted, respected, or loved the way we are now.

Feedback often feels like it puts these two things in opposition to each other, but that is because we don’t know how to receive it. Let’s look at the three different kinds of feedback out there.

  • Evaluation – This is where you rank among peers.
  • Coaching – This is what helps you learn and grow.
  • Appreciation – This is what helps people feel like they matter. It keeps us motivated.

To put this into context, imagine the last time you got back a term paper from school. Evaluation is the grade on the back page. Coaching is the comments in red ink that tell you what was wrong and how to improve. Appreciation is the teacher’s message on the front that says, “Great job!”

Every organization needs all three to survive. Usually, appreciation is usually the first to go. And then evaluation and coaching get tangled up together. But regardless of the quality of the feedback we’re getting, we often reject it anyway.

There are three basic triggered reactions that cause us to block feedback.

  • Truth Triggers – Is it true?
  • Relationship Triggers – Do I trust the source of the feedback?
  • Identity Triggers – Does it fit with the story that I tell myself about myself?

In order to receive feedback well, we must learn not to react first thing. We can’t assume that we know the story without getting all of the facts of what the giver means. We need to see ourselves clearly by getting rid of our blind spots. In order to do that, we have to ask a friend for honest feedback and supportive help.

When leaders become good feedback receivers:

  • you’ll get honest and helpful feedback.
  • you’ll role model the behavior that you want to see.
  • you’ll automatically become a better feedback giver.

Lastly, the key to getting the kind of feedback that is most helpful is by focusing on “one thing.”

  • What is “one thing” that you particularly appreciate?
  • What is “one thing” that you seem me doing or not doing?
  • What is “one thing” that you feel I should change?

When we start receiving feedback well, people will start giving us more than just the “one thing” that we ask for. And when that happens, we will start to realize that true feedback isn’t a violation of the two basic human needs (growth & acceptance), but the best way to serve both.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Sheila Heen has spent two decades at the Harvard Negotiation Project specializing in our most difficult conversations–where disagreements are strong, emotions run high and relationships become strained. Her firm, Triad Consulting Group, works with executive teams to strengthen their working relationships, work through tough conversations and make sound decisions together. She has written two New York Times bestsellers, including her most recent, Thanks for the Feedback, which helps leadership improve their ability to receive feedback.


Givers, Takers, and Matchers with Adam Grant


“If I don’t look out for myself, no one else will.”

“Let me help you with that. It’d be my pleasure!”

Now let’s pause and reflect on the two statements above. Can you imagine them coming out of the same mouth? Probably not.

The first statement, “I have to watch out for my own interests first,” is representative of someone we’ll call a taker. You probably know someone like this. Takers aren’t necessarily or obviously evil, they just tend to put themselves first and try to get more out of situations than they put into them.

The second statement is very focused on putting others first and is typical of someone we’ll call a giver. Givers are wonderful people who are always thinking of how they can take care of other people, often to the detriment of themselves. You can probably think of someone like this too.

And now you are probably thinking that there should be a third type of person, because you don’t consider yourself a taker but you recognize that you probably aren’t a giver either. For people like us, there’s the term of matcher. Matchers are people who put as much into a situation as they pull out, not more and not less. Justice and fairness is extremely important to us (yes, I identify as a matcher).

Now, let’s take a look at how these kinds of people fit into an organization.

First, who do you think is at typically at the bottom of the totem pole within any organization? I know that we all want it to be the takers since we’d like to think that the people who exploit others should be rewarded for their selfishness with a lack of success, but that just isn’t true. We both know that at the bottom of the ladder are the givers–people who allow themselves to be trod upon, who are willing to put in long hours for people who have no interest in returning the favor.

Knowing that the bottom is filled with givers, who do you think is at the top? If you are a bit pessimistic like me, your first answer would be that takers rise to the top since they take from everyone else. Fortunately, we pessimists are wrong for once. It isn’t takers who dominate leadership.

It must be matchers then, right? Since matchers are concerned first and foremost about justice and fairness, we use all of the weapons in our arsenal to take down takers (fortunately takers also take down other takers since they can’t stand other people getting the things that they want too). But matchers aren’t at the top of the pile either.

In addition to populating the lowest rung of an organization’s society, givers also gather at the top of that society. Interesting, right?

Obviously, the implication is that in order to rise in our leadership positions, we should be givers. We should be willing to put in the long hours and put others first. If we do this well and for long enough, it will be noticed and it will be rewarded.

Speaker, Adam Grant, has a lot more to say about givers, takers, and matchers in his book, Give and Take. In addition to a killer hairstyle, Adam Grant has impressive academic and business credentials. His presentation was top-notch and if you get a chance to hear him, take it (but not as a taker would; do it in a giving way if possible).