Tough Love: How Hard Feedback Changed My Life 

Feedback is a gift, but only if you open your heart and mind to receive it

This is the second in my two-part series on feedback. If you didn’t read last week’s post, please go back and read Giving Feedback So It Lands.

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Feedback is a gift, but only if you open your mind and heart to receive it.  I struggled with accepting negative feedback for a long time. It all felt personal, like a bad mark on a report card, someone pointing out something I did wrong. It made me feel attacked, like my flaws were exposed. 

It took me a long time to realize that my reaction to feedback wasn’t healthy. I needed to take some distance from the feedback itself and seek more balance. Rather than getting defensive, I had to learn to suppress my natural desire to react, and instead allow myself the space to think deeply. What was at the heart of the critical feedback I was receiving, and what did it have to say about me?

“You have won. Now it is time to be gracious.” 

I was once sitting in a meeting and presenting my product. I made an offhand quip about how another team had tried to get our project killed. Afterward, Sheryl Sandberg pulled me aside and said the above words to me.  All my life I have been a fighter, someone who needed to get the A, who needed to win.  Sheryl’s response made me realize that the thing that had gotten me to where I was was now getting in the way. I appeared defensive and insecure when our product had succeeded. I sat on this feedback for a while and internalized it. I needed to stop fighting and learn to be more gracious.  

“You are such a good fit for what you were doing that I can't imagine you doing something else.” 

I remember a time when I wanted to take on something new, but my manager couldn’t see it happening when I brought it up. I had built my identity around what I was working on, and no one could imagine me doing something else. This reaction taught me that being good at your job is one thing, but taking it on as an identity risks pigeonholing you and giving you fewer degrees of freedom. It took me some time to evolve beyond that, to where my identity was no longer tied to my specific role. This feedback was motivation to learn to be more well-rounded and set myself up to do more in the future.   

“You have a really hard time connecting with people.” 

Dan Rose, my skip-level manager at the time, once told me this in our one-on-one.  Though my work output was good, I struggled with really getting to know people and forming a relationship with them.  When Dan gave me this feedback, it was both fair and devastating.  I had taken Touchy-Feely at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and the feedback I received was similar. I held myself apart and struggled to integrate with the people around me.  

I grew up a stranger in a strange world. Being one of the few Asian people in the state of South Carolina always made me feel like “the other”. I constantly tried to fit in, and I constantly felt like I was failing. I felt like I was faking feelings that I didn’t have, in order to be someone I wasn’t. This resulted in people feeling alienated from me, and it was starting to get in the way of my work. 

“You need to stop watching the movie in your own head and see the movie playing in the other person’s head.”   

For a long time, I had difficulty reading the room and understanding people. This was an extension of that same alienation Dan mentioned. It made me feel like I lacked empathy and understanding. I remember saying to my career coach, Katia Verresen, “I feel like I am squinting, desperately trying to make out what other people are saying.”  That was when she gave me this feedback. She went on to explain that I was too much in my own head, and instead needed to look at the world from other people’s point of view. I wish I could say that something clicked and I immediately learned to do this, but it took years of effort and coaching to really learn to read others and exude the warmth that comes from true empathy and understanding.  

"Trust yourself and take a risk. Stop second-guessing and believe in yourself." 

I debated taking the CEO job at Ancestry for several weeks. I loved the product and the company, but I still found myself hesitating. Was I ready to take this step? What if I couldn’t do it justice? I reached out to my Facebook colleague and friend, Vijaye Raji, who was leaving to start his own company. I explained my hesitation, and he pulled me out of my indecision.  I realized when he said this that he was right: the loss of what was behind me was what was paralyzing me, not the opportunity ahead. Vijaye’s words reminded me that my superpower wasn’t being able to do everything; it was my ability to learn and adapt. 

How to Process Feedback 

Not all feedback is worth internalizing, but it all has some kernel of truth at its heart. Sometimes your initial reaction to feedback will be to get defensive. Resist the urge to justify your actions and instead ask yourself, “What about my behavior would prompt this person to feel this way?”  There are concentric circles surrounding us: 

  • Intent is at the center. Our own intent is clear to us, but others can’t see it. You could be reacting because of a similar situation that happened in the past, or you could just be having a bad day. Other people have no way of knowing.

  • Behavior is in the middle. What others see is what we say and do, and that is often all the information they have. 

  • Perception is the outer ring. How someone interprets our behavior is beyond our immediate control. They can’t know our intent, so they are processing only what they can observe in light of their experience.  

Feedback only comes from perception, but often it unknowingly presumes intent.  Unpacking the feedback you’re receiving to understand what about your behavior prompted it will help you decide what to do with the information.  

Feedback is received in the context of a relationship.  While feedback is a gift, how you hear and receive it is based on the relationship you have with the giver. Imagine someone told you (as I have been told) that you need to be more transparent and open, because you’ve created a barrier to people working with and trusting you.  Imagine you got that feedback from someone who has your back — your mentor or sponsor, for example.  You know they're invested in your success.  Now imagine you hear this from someone with whom you have a difficult relationship or someone you would prefer not to work with again.  Which lands better with you?  And which would be more likely to make you defensive?

Feedback is a gift, but you get to choose what to do with it.  Sometimes feedback causes us to overcorrect because we feel like we need to react, but be conscious that what you do with feedback is your choice. Take the feedback you’re given and give it some time. Ask a trusted sponsor if they see the same patterns. Then decide how you want to take action. While feedback may be valid for the giver, how you address it is completely within your control.  

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Feedback, when given and received with support and love, can be a turning point for you. The greatest mistake we can make is to appear resistant to hearing it. If your friends and colleagues knew exactly what was holding you back from a stretch assignment or a promotion but didn’t tell you, you would rightfully be upset. Likewise, if you are not open to growing or hearing the truth, you are missing out. Even as I think back to each of these events, all of which were huge turning points, I still feel a bit of a twinge about how I got something so wrong. In the end, though, the growing pains were worth it, and that same hard feedback helped me get to where I am today. 

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