Feedback has its finger on three triggers

That’s not the way it went! Who are you to say? I never make mistakes like that! After everything I’ve done for you, how dare you say this to my face?

According to Thanks for the Feedback, these are typical headlines in the newscast inside a human mind, as we receive critique. The book is written by Douglas Stone ja Sheila Heen, who work as lecturers in the Harward Law School and Program on Negotiation. In their book they dig deep into receiving feedback: why is it so hard and how could we turn the feedback into constructive growth.

Thanks for the Feedback introduces three different kinds of triggers that activate from critique. Either the feedback is unreasonable or wrong, it comes from a wrong person, or it is a threat to our identity. Let’s imagine, for example, that a colleague or a boss of yours comes to tell you that: ”You were negligent and didn’t test your code properly and now we have a bug in the production”. What kind of reactions happen inside you?

The truth trigger

Truth trigger activates when we feel that the feedback is untruthful, unreasonable or simply wrong. The inner monologue prattles: ”This can’t be right! I’m sure I tested everything carefully like I always do. Besides, that one test case didn’t make sense anyway, and that kind of situation would never even happen in reality.”

When the storm of emotions, that was caused by the feedback, has died down – and it might take a while – it is possible to have a look at the given feedback in a constructive manner. First, it is essential to recognise that the reaction was caused exactly because of the truth trigger. After that, start slowly to lean from the position of ”that can’t be right” towards the question: ”What has actually happened and is it possible that an error has occurred to me?”

We all have our blind spots, and days when we are more sloppy than usual, or we suffer from temporary blackouts of memory. So the next step is to ask more information from the one who is giving the feedback: “Where is the bug? Have I possibly missed a test case? Can we have a closer look at this?”

The relationship trigger

Relationship trigger activates when we think that the feedback is coming from the wrong person. The content of the inner audiotape: ”Who are you to tell me this, when you have no idea what kind of problems this project has? How can you blame me of being negligent after I’ve been so flexible and created this code through night and day only to reach your immoderate schedule? Me? Negligent? It is you whose code is the most buggy and lacks quality.”

In these situations it is way too easy to end up on the sidetrack to argue on who is better and who is worse or is the other person justified to give feedback in the first place. These are two different conversations. These ”yes, but you” types of counter strikes need to be dealt with separately and it is good to sit down later with calm and examine how each has affected the situation in hand.

It is not, however, the number one priority when we want to handle the feedback. We should learn to put the relationship aside and to focus on the feedback itself at first.

It is again time to start the conversation and find out how the bug has gotten into the production and could it have been humanly possible to prevent it from happening then, and what can be done to avoid it in the future. Only later are the strict schedules or the deficiencies on the colleaque’s code included in the conversation.

The identity trigger

When the feedback is threatening our identity, our perception of who we are, the identity trigger activates. That’s when on the inside we hear: ”I can’t be negligent, I’m always precise and careful and high quality is important to me! I don’t make mistakes like this, there have never been bugs on the production because of me. I am not that bad… or am I?”

Depending on your own inner programming, receiving critique and making a mistake can feel crushing. Instead of just scrutinising what has happened and admitting that a mistake indeed has occurred, we get into deep water and think that we are the mistake. We think that after one error our reputation and identity is lost forever.

We should put the feedback into the right perspective. One mistake doesn’t make anyone a sloppy person and one bug in the production doesn’t make anyone a lousy developer. We all make mistakes, especially under pressure, or when we are tired or under difficult conditions. What matters is that we move the focus from ”how this can have happened to me” into “what can I learn from this and what will I do differently in the future”.

Calm down, recognise, proceed

Receiving critique pulls triggers on us, and we can’t stop this mechanism from working its ways. But an experienced feedback receiver can learn to calm down when the reaction kicks in, recognise the activated trigger and find a way from the defence to the solution, growth and improvement.

Which trigger usually activates on you? Do you recognise the monologues in your own life? Leave a comment or come to have a chat in Koodarikuiskaaja Slack!

TL;DR: Critique activates three different kinds of triggers on us

  • The truth trigger activates when we think that the feedback is untruthful or unreasonable.
    • The key is to find out if the one giving the feedback has information that we don’t.
  • The relationship trigger activates if we don’t think that the person giving the feedback is justified to do so.
    • It is essential to separate the relationship and the conversation related to that from the feedback itself and to examine the feedback as a separate matter.
  • The identity trigger activates when the feedback is threatening the perception that we have of ourselves.
    • When the identity is under a threat, it is important to put the feedback into the right perspective and to seek for the possibility for growth which the feedback can offer.
  • More information on the book Thanks for the Feedback – Douglas Stone & Sheila Heen.

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