Today we are joined by Sheila Heen. Sheila is a Founder of Triad Consulting Group and has been on the Harvard Law School faculty as a Lecturer on Law since 1995. She often works with executive teams, helping them to work through conflict, repair working relationships, and make sound decisions together.

Sheila’s clients include Pixar, Hugo Boss and the NBA. She’s even provided training for the Obama White House. Sheila has spent more than twenty years with the Harvard Negotiation Project, developing negotiation theory and practice. She specializes in particularly difficult negotiations where emotions run high and relationships become strained.  She is co-author of two New York Times bestsellers: Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, and the recently released Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well.

Sheila has appeared on shows as diverse as Oprah and the G. Gordon Liddy show. She has spoken at the Global Leadership Summit, Apple, Google, and Microsoft.  She is a graduate of Occidental College in Los Angeles and Harvard Law School.  She is schooled in negotiation daily by her three children.



Difficult Conversations

Sheila’s journey began by finding ways to help managers and leaders become better at crucial conversations. A repeating pattern was one of the most difficult conversations leaders have is when they are giving feedback to employees and co-workers. And so, she focused on helping give these people the tools and skills to deliver their messages better. But what she and her colleagues discovered after coaching many people how to give feedback, was that giving is only half the equation; the second half is a skillset around receiving feedback. Effective feedback is just as much about how the recipient receives the information as it is about the giver’s delivery and messaging.

As she worked with this concept, she discovered that leaders who developed their skills in receiving feedback unleashed the following benefits:

  1. By learning how to be a good receiver of feedback, we gain new insights into how to give feedback to others.
  2. By displaying positive behaviours in the way we, as leaders, receive feedback, we model the way for others and build the culture and skills for effective feedback in our organizations.

With this foundation, Sheila and her colleagues went to develop models that leaders could use to enhance their feedback conversations.

Three Types of Feedback

The first skill a leader needs is to recognize there are three distinct types of feedback that can be referenced with the acronym ACE:

  1. Appreciation – simply noticing and communicating when someone does something well, puts in extra effort, or adds value in some way. This type of feedback plays a large role with employees in motivation and engagement.
  2. Coaching – a way of providing feedback to help the receiver learn or grow in some way. Often, if this is combined with appreciation, the receiver will be more open to the advice or opinions.
  3. Evaluation – the type of feedback most common in performance reviews where an individual’s behaviour and/or results are compared against some target. For employees, these should be the measures embedded in their Role Scorecards.

By understanding these three types of feedback, we can better strategize when to give and receive which type (often they get lumped together). For instance, appreciation should be given often, and publicly (assuming that works for the receiver, and it does for most), while coaching and evaluation may be better done less often and privately.

Being a Better Feedback Receiver

Sheila then went on to provide some ideas and processes we can use to be better receivers of feedback:

  • Ask for feedback, and if someone agrees to give it, specify what type of feedback you are looking for (A, C or E).
  • Recognize that how feedback is received isn’t just about the facts. It’s also often about who is giving us the feedback or how the feedback lines up to our own identity of ourselves. For example, have you ever given credit to the feedback you’ve received from someone you trust and is credible, yet earlier rejected that same feedback from someone else?
  • Recognize that it’s an honour to receive feedback and appreciate the giver’s willingness to enter the conversation.
  • Know that feedback that comes across as critical can put us on the defensive and surface strong emotions. As Sarah Noll Wilson showed us in a previous Unleashed Episode, “the amygdala will trigger a threat-based response within .07 seconds and pushes out adrenalin and cortisol. In this threat-based state, our brains lose access to higher functions of the prefrontal cortex – logic, empathy, rationality, etc.”
  • Feedback does not have to be judged, accepted or rejected in the moment. It’s a good strategy to give yourself and others “space and grace” to consider the information before deciding what to do with it.
  • Beware of a “switch-tracking” effect in emotional situations. Like a switch on a rail line, sometimes feedback can result in a split of topics between the givers and receivers. For example, when a spouse comes home late for dinner prepared by the other, the first wants to give the feedback, “you’re late, careless, and inattentive to your family”, while the receiver may switch tracks to, “well, you don’t understand me and how hard I have to work to support this family. I don’t feel appreciated.” These two topics are on different tracks and should be recognized and then discussed separately.

Sheila went on to share many other insights into the topic of feedback like how people are wired differently in their sensitivity to feedback, the link between organizational performance and regular employee feedback by managers, how to accept or reject feedback and to balance open-mindedness with assertiveness. Explore these by watching the entire recorded episode inserted above.

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Each episode of Unleashed is hosted by Results’ CEO Jeff Tetz who spends most of his day exploring what makes high performers tick and helping build a community of leaders who want to learn and grow together. Follow Jeff (Twitter; LinkedIn; Instagram) for more great leadership insights.