Episode 26: Sheila Heen - The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback
On this episode of the podcast, we welcome Sheila Heen. Sheila is the CEO of Triad Consulting and has been a lecturer at Harvard Law School since 1995. She has spent the last twenty years with the Harvard Negotiation Project, researching and developing negotiation theory. Her book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback provides the basis for our discussion today. We also preview what to expect at her workshop for the BRG Women’s Leadership Conference later this year.
Hi, ThinkSet listeners. Eddie Newland here. As you might know, Phil Rowley, BRG's executive director and chief revenue officer, is getting into the podcast game. Check out his conversation with Jaime Diaz at the Golf Channel and with other experts on leadership. Phil's podcast is called Intelligence That Works, and it's available in this feed and wherever you get your podcasts.
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On today's episode of the ThinkSet Podcast, we welcome Sheila Heen. Sheila and I connected over Skype to preview her presentation for BRG’s Women's Leadership Conference this October in Naples, Florida. Sheila is the CEO of Triad Consulting and has been a lecturer at Harvard Law School since 1995. She has spent the past twenty years with the Harvard Negotiation Project, researching and developing negotiation theory. Ms. Heen is also the coauthor of the New York Times Business bestseller Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. Her latest book, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback, provides the basis for our discussion today. In addition to that topic, we preview what to expect from her workshop at the Women's Leadership Conference.
And with that, let's get started. Well, Sheila, thank you for much for joining us on the ThinkSet Podcast today. How are you?
I'm great. How are you?
I'm doing really well. So diving right in, you're probably best known for your book Difficult Conversations. For those that don't know, Difficult Conversations is a New York Times Business bestseller, a book that you wrote with your colleagues from the Harvard Negotiation Project. As the title indicates, you have more productive difficult conversations. How did you get into thinking about feedback and this topic?
Well, it's a great question. I really spent twenty years of my career traveling around helping leaders with their toughest conversation, and one of the things that we started to notice over the years is that feedback was coming up as a topic or as a kind of difficult conversation that people were struggling with. And it kind of didn't matter who we were talking to or what industry we were in, people all over the world struggle with feedback. And our first reaction was to do what I think everybody does, which is that we focused on helping givers know how to give, right, like, "Here's how you can be more clear and more skillful and do it more often." That was great.
There's a lot you can learn, but what we started to notice is that it wasn't totally solving the problem. When we would come back and say, "So how's it going? How are those feedback conversations?" they'd say, "Yeah, I tried it, and I got a defensive reaction, and it just didn't seem worth the effort. Nothing really has changed, or they ended up less motivated than they were before, so I kind of gave up."
And so I think we were puzzling over this for a number of years before it finally hit us that, actually, we were only focusing on half of the equation. In other words, the skills needed to give feedback effectively are half of the equation, but the other half—and I would say arguably the more important half—is how do we think about and understand the challenges of receiving feedback from the people around us? Really, for all of us, and maybe particularly for really smart, really accomplished senior people, why is it so hard for us to take feedback, whether it's formal feedback or that informal, indirect, helpful little suggestion in our professional life or our personal life? And we all tend to have sort of triggered reactions to that feedback.
And so I think that really launched us on the book that became Thanks for the Feedback, which is all about how to understand why receiving feedback is so challenging and particularly, maybe, for high achievers.
Now, when you guys set out the process over those twenty years of—not doing specific research on the topic, but as you were gathering information and chatting with people about these conversations that we're having, what were the biggest conclusions that jumped out to you before you realized that feedback is really what you should be focusing on? Were there any red herrings that had you guys studying down different lines before you realized that feedback is really the crux of the issue?
Well, what's interesting is that we thought that, "Well, people need to learn to have these conversations better." So then we focused on teaching givers how to give. And then, when that doesn't totally solve the problem, people shift over to think, "Well, our feedback system needs to be overhauled. We need a new performance management system," and so then we fixed the system. And it's still not necessarily better, so now we go back to think, "Well, maybe the people are broken." So either the system's broken or the people are broken, but neither one of those was really actually addressing the problem.
And I think the problem is that we need to learn how to have richer feedback conversations with each other just to improve our collaboration, day in and day out, in ways that are less formal, but much richer and more effective, and that has to become a norm in the organization. And you can do that with sort of a handful of core, daily practices.
Okay. And did you guys find when you were doing all of this—I [was] a psychology major, so, in the back of my mind, I'm always thinking about personality types. But when it came to feedback, were there certain personality types that were better at receiving than others? Obviously, high achievers, senior-level people—a lot of them have a limited number of personality types—are the ones that typically drive them to the top. But were there any that allowed people to get to the top, but were also good at receiving feedback, or was it kind of across the board, these individuals just really struggled with hearing feedback?
Well, you're hitting on a couple of really important things. One is that as you become more senior in any organization, fewer and fewer people are willing to take the risk to give you feedback, like honest coaching, right, because they don't want to risk their relationship with you. So as you're becoming more senior and having a bigger and bigger impact on everybody and on the business, fewer and fewer people are willing to help you understand that or to talk to you about it. So actually, as you become more senior, you actually need more advanced skills to get honest coaching or insights to become better as a leader, and a collaborator, and a problem solver.
But the second thing you're asking, which is about differences among individuals, turned out to be really interesting, because one of the things we found is that, in terms of sensitivity to feedback—meaning how upset do you get, and how long does it take you to recover; or on the positive side, how big an impact does positive feedback have on you? How long does it give you sort of a bounce in your step when you get positive appreciation from someone else? How long does that last?
Individuals can vary in their sensitivity to feedback by up to 3,000 percent. And so what this suggests is that, of course, we're all now in organizations together and working with clients and customers and partners and collaborators. And we have really different profiles, in terms of how we receive feedback and how we prefer people to get it and then give it. And we're all trying to work together without understanding that about ourselves or understanding that about each other.
Yeah, I mean, I'm just sitting here now imagining that I know my reaction to feedback from a subordinate at work versus a superior at work, versus even an individual relationship I have outside of work, whether it's my marriage or friendships—there are certain people I know I take feedback better from than others. And some, for whatever reason, it might be hard to even just take criticism at all. [It] probably has a lot to do with how you view the individual versus maybe what they're actually saying.
Sometimes I know for a fact that I hear things from people that I don't want to hear it, but they're right, and I have a hard time incorporating it just because I don't want to. I don't want to give them that satisfaction sometimes. So I can only imagine if you extrapolate that out to people that are in charge of very senior businesses, as rivalries and relationships are complicated for everybody, that that must be a tougher needle to thread when it comes to being able to give productive and actionable feedback.
Absolutely. So you're actually hitting upon a second trigger. So we talk about three triggers and reactions that we have when we get feedback from someone in our professional life as our personal lives.
The first is just sort of my profile, how sensitive am I, etc. But the second one is the one that you're noticing now, which is what we call a relationship trigger, which is all about who gave us the feedback, right? So feedback lives in the relationship between giver and receiver. And depending on whether I like you, trust you, think you know what you're talking about, think you actually have my best interests in mind, I'm going to react really differently to the feedback that you offer me.
And we often have a bigger reaction to the who then we do to the what, right? So what they're saying might be true. It might actually be helpful, which by the way is infuriating because I don't like them, and I don't trust them. But what's interesting from my point of view is that we let the who sort of drown out the what. And the people that we find difficult to work with are sometimes sort of the most valuable players in our own learning. And so they are maybe the people we should be paying more attention to because they're the ones who see our edges, and it's when we're under stress and frustrated working with them where we sometimes have things that we can work on and improve.
The third trigger is what we call a truth trigger, like is what you're saying true, accurate? Is it good advice or bad advice, right? Do I think it would be helpful for me? Like, "Great, that worked for you, but that wouldn't work for me. You don't really understand the whole circumstance," for example, so that's all about assessing the quality of the feedback itself. And part of what's hard about that is that, of course, we all have these blind spots, so that people can make suggestions to us that don't make any sense, because we're just thinking, "I don't think I do that," but we're actually not aware that we do that, right, or about the impact that we have on other people because they don't tell us about it. And that can be a blind spot, too.
Yeah. So we're doing this recording in part as a promotion for the BRG Women's Leadership Conference. And on the topic of feedback, are there any particular challenges that senior women face around feedback?
Yeah, for sure. I'm really excited to join the group for this event because I think that feedback is particularly complicated for women. There are two interesting things going on. One is that sometimes women get less feedback because people feel anxious about offering us suggestions, or they think like, "Oh, you'll think that I'm being sexist," or, "You'll think that I'm not treating you fairly," etc. And so there's a way in which some of that on-the-golf-course kinds of informal feedback and mentoring that happens among men doesn't happen between men and women. So sometimes you actually don't get honest feedback or mentoring in the same way.
But then, the flip side of that is that women can also get more critical feedback than men get. So there are some studies that have come out recently that suggest that women get more critical comments and more critical comments about how they are, who they are, and how they are than men may get.
And I think it's just more complicated for women. Take the simple question of what to wear to the whatever—presentation, meeting, board meeting, etc. Men don't have that many choices, right? And you just can't get it that wrong. Like, "Oh, you wore the stone-colored khakis, and you should have worn the tan khakis." That's just not going to be a big deal. But for women, the range is just more complex in figuring out: "How do I hit the right note exactly?" There's just more ways to get it wrong or to be perceived just getting it wrong.
So gender is never off the table when it comes to feedback. But at the same time, it's very rarely 100 percent of the answer. So sometimes I'll hear a woman say like, "I keep getting this feedback, and it's very consistent, long-standing, from multiple people," and she'll say, "I think that they just don't like working for a woman."
And I think to myself, that could be part of it for sure. And it's a strong-enough theme from enough people, but that can't be 100 percent of the story. So part of what we'll talk a little bit about is how do you parse your feedback to figure out what's worth holding onto and thinking about and maybe valuable to me, and what can I safely set aside, leave behind, and not let get in the way of really further success.
Now for the same issue that we were describing earlier, you guys focus on the giver of the feedback and realize that that's only half the equation; that it's also the recipient of the feedback, that you need to work to help them understand how to take feedback critically and work with it. Are there unique issues around senior women not only receiving these feedbacks but also giving them? The women in a senior position, generally senior people, being the ones that are probably giving more feedback than they're receiving.
Yeah. That's a great question, because I don't know that I have seen any studies that tell us whether a woman offering the feedback is better or less well received than a man. If I were to speculate, women generally are perceived to be more trustworthy. In other words, if they're a stranger, you're more likely to think a woman's being straight with you. You're a little more suspicious of a man that you don't know.
That makes me wonder whether women offering feedback might have some advantages in terms of getting the benefit of the doubt from the receiver, but I think that that might be overshadowed by whether or not the receiver likes you, feels like you have a good relationship, right? They might trust you, but maybe they don't think you know what you're talking about, right? You've still got all of the relationship triggers present in terms of the quality of your relationship and how they interpret your feedback.
I mean, the easiest way to think about that is just to think about your teenagers, right? At this stage, anything you offer them is viewed with suspicion. It doesn't matter whether you're a mom or a dad or whoever. The quality of your relationship is sort of fraught with, "When do I get to make my own decisions, and why do you think you know better than I do, and you don't really understand me or my life." They're going to be suspicious of your "coaching" no matter what.
Yeah. And so we've jumped to the people that are actually willing to give feedback, and, given certain circumstances, I guess at work you kind of have no choice. If you have a review, you're going to receive some feedback. But actually being willing to do that—the act of giving somebody feedback, giving them coaching—isn't a step that everybody takes, even when there are people that are in charge. We've all had an absentee boss where you're dying to hear what they think of the work that you've done, but they just don't give you any sort of feedback. What is it that prevents people from getting over that hurdle? Is there a certain thing that they fear, just not being respected and it not working? What have you found, or what does the literature tell us about that?
Well, I think that there are probably a dozen different reasons why, at different times, people don't offer feedback. Sometimes there's a little bit of an identity issue there, like, "I don't want to hurt your feelings. I don't want you to be mad at me. I want you to like me." Sometimes it's just like, "I don't have time. I'd love to sit down and walk through this with you, but we're just so under the gun that I've got to run to the next thing, my schedule is back-to-back." Sometimes they don't even think of it. It doesn't even occur to them as a thing to do, or that would be helpful. So whatever the reason, what you're raising is that I think that our reaction, when you're waiting for feedback from somebody above you, is just to wait and hope and wish you had a better mentor, right, or coach, or more direction.
And this is one of the reasons why I have come to believe that getting better at receiving feedback is actually the key to having better and richer feedback conversations throughout the organization. And if you get to be a better receiver, you can actually take charge of and drive your own learning, because givers often take their cues from receivers. Like, "I turned something in to you, you didn't say anything. What could I do to make it not a huge time investment, but to let you know I actually do want honest coaching that would be helpful to me. I'm eager for that. You don't have to worry about me getting defensive. I may or may not agree with you, but I would love to have that conversation, and it doesn't have to be a long one."
So one of the things we'll talk about are a couple of key practices where you can just weave that in. One of them is just to ask for “one thing”: "Hey, what's one thing that if I changed it about what I handed you, would make it more useful to you?" That's something that they can say off the top of their head. We can say it on the way, as we walk down the hall to the meeting, right, where we both read the brief that I did for you, or to get ready for the meeting. "Hey, what's one thing that, next time, I should change about how I approach this to make it more useful?" They're going to be eager to answer that question, because it's good for both of you. But you don't have to wait for them to think to volunteer it.
What about immediacy of feedback? That would be a good example of, "Hey, I just handed you this; you've read it; we're on our way to the meeting; I'm asking you something that's top of mind." But what about: you've had the meeting, you're coming out of it, does it help to ask after that, "Hey, is there anything that you would have liked to know, or is there anything I could do better in that meeting next time?" Or is there a certain period of time that gives somebody to reflect on what just happened, and then they're better able to provide the feedback?
Yeah, partly it depends. As a general rule of thumb, I would say that the more immediate and timely, the better, right? It's fresh on our minds, and we can move on. There are probably a few exceptions to that. One would be, sometimes in the moment, we're just under time pressure. We don't have time to pause, to discuss how to make it better quite yet, because we've just got to get to the goal line, right? This is due at 5 o'clock, we've got to file it, whatever. We've got to run to the next meeting. So in that case, it might be better to say, "Look, let's reflect over the weekend about how things went this week, and let's just talk Monday morning about what we want to change next week." But giving somebody a heads-up means that you guys will reflect about it over the weekend, and you're not as apt to leave it behind.
The other thing that is worth mentioning, though, is that—particularly for people who are really sensitive to feedback—one thing that can matter is that you don't offer them feedback in the middle of something, such that then they're upset.
I mention this because my coauthor, Doug Stone, and I, on the book Thanks for the Feedback, we actually have really different feedback profiles. And I am pretty even-keeled, and he is actually really highly sensitive to feedback, and it leads us to actually have different requests of each other. So if we're in the middle of giving a talk or teaching, which we do frequently, and I notice something that he left out or that should be clarified, if I interrupt him to say, "Oh, by the way, be sure to clarify this or that," he can be so agitated by that that it ruins the rest of the talk because he's so upset and annoyed. And he would prefer that I wait until the end, like, "Just tell me later and that way it won't ruin the rest of class."
I actually have the opposite request, because if he doesn't clarify or jump in to correct something in the moment, and he waits until the end, then I'm annoyed because I'm like, "Well, now I can't correct it, right? And I left them confused, so why in the world did you wait until the end?"
And so this is one of the reasons why one of the most valuable things you can do with the colleagues that you work with closely is just to talk a little bit about: "Hey, let's talk about how we offer each other suggestions or observations so that we can constantly be improving how we're working together. And we probably have different preferences about that." And that actually lays a foundation for us to not make it a big deal, but just to constantly be offering each other, "Hey, next time do you think you could send this to me in the following format," or whatever, right? "Next time, let's be sure to take five minutes before we get on that next conference call." That's a suggestion that would be helpful for all of us. And that's just the way that we work together day in and day out.
Now, this colleague that you mention is part of your Harvard Negotiation Project. Based on everything we've been talking about today, some might be led to believe that this is all you guys work on. But what else do you derive from the Harvard Negotiation Project? What are the other focuses that you guys work on with your students and in your research?
So the Harvard Negotiation Project and the Program on Negotiation, which is the larger collection of negotiation folks in the Boston–Cambridge area, is really devoted to finding better ways for you and me to handle conflict. The Harvard Negotiation Project, in particular, is probably best known for the book Getting to Yes [Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In], which was published in 1979 by Roger Fisher and Bill Ury and Bruce Patton. And it became sort of a central text in the world of conflict resolution and negotiation.
And it really came out of Roger's experience fighting in World War II. He fought in both the Pacific and the Atlantic theaters, and he came home from the war having lost so many of his friends, and really devoted the rest of his life to trying to improve the way human beings handle conflict.
So by the time I showed up there in the early '90s, they'd been working and teaching in negotiation based on Getting to Yes for fifteen years already. I joined them, and I continue to teach negotiation at Harvard, both in the regular law school curriculum and also in the exec ed programs and the master class. That kind of led to, "Well, what about when it's a particularly challenging relationship? What about when there's little trust, and there's lots of history? And we each think the other person needs to change because they're driving us crazy, and they're the problem." And that kind of led us down the path to a difficult conversation, trying to understand what's different about particularly difficult conversations and what helps. And then from there to feedback conversations, which is really a deeper dive into the ways in which we want other people to change and they want us to change.
Looking forward, do you have any sense for what the next evolution of the research might—ten years from now, what the next book might be that you all are working on, that hasn't become a book yet, but you see the conversation heading that way?
Yeah. Oh, it's a timely question. Our editor just asked us this question on Friday. I don't know yet. It took us fifteen years between Difficult Conversations and Thanks for the Feedback, partly because we felt like we didn't want to write the same book multiple times. We really felt like we needed to wait and learn something new. And so part of the reason that I'm looking forward to the conversation at this event is that I feel like these are the conversations that spark my interest in thinking about something new.
In addition to my work at Harvard, by the way, I spend the other half of my life working with clients all over the world on sort of their own toughest challenges across a whole bunch of industries. And so I feel like I'm in a learning stance in really interesting conversations with other smart people where we wrestle with, as competent as we are and as experienced as we are.
And everyone coming to this BRG event is incredibly accomplished, thoughtful, smart, and clearly enjoys learning something new. That's why they come to events like this. And that is just such an amazing luxury and opportunity for us to learn from each other.
And so partly what we'll be doing is having conversations with each other about the places where we struggle and what we can learn and take back and use right away with our own teams and colleagues. And, by the way, the work that I do always spans our professional life and our personal lives, because getting better at these conversations is really a life-long journey. And everything that I learn at work is something that I can apply at home and vice versa, really, because it's all about the quality of those personal relationships and working relationships. So I'm really looking forward to it.
Definitely sounds like a great session that you guys have coming up in October, again at the BRG Women's Leadership Conference.
Well, Sheila, thank you so much for joining us on the ThinkSet Podcast today. I'm looking forward to the conference and hopefully catching up with you again down the line.
Wonderful. Thank you so much. [music]
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