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How Open Are You to Feedback, and Does It Really Matter?

New research shows how the right feedback orientation can simplify your life.

Key points

  • Some people love feedback and others hate it.
  • New research suggests that, at least in job success, it’s better to open your mind to the reactions of others.
  • By adopting a flexible approach toward feedback, you can build the ability to reach your most important goals.

Receiving feedback from others is an essential component of being able to adapt to the situations that life can throw your way. How do you know if you’re doing well unless someone gives you the thumbs up or thumbs down? Yet, not everyone welcomes feedback, and some actively resist it. Those who fight it live their lives with their heads in the metaphorical sand, sometimes to their peril.

Consider the situation in which you’ve just completed an important project, either at work or in your personal life. To you, it seems perfect. However, it soon becomes evident that not everyone is exactly impressed by your efforts. You detect a few critical glances directed toward you, and later, even worse, the person who’s in charge takes you aside to share their less-than-glowing reactions. With that metaphorical sand at your disposal, you pretend that nothing is wrong. As much as this refusal to acknowledge fault might protect your pride, if this is your typical reaction, it also can come at the cost of lower performance appraisals or exclusion from the chance to try again.

Feedback Orientation and Positive Outcomes

According to Old Dominion University’s Ian Katz and colleagues (2023), people differ substantially in their willingness to accept these appraisals from others, a quality known as “feedback orientation.” In the world of organizational psychology, Katz and his coauthors note that research on individual differences in this quality has mushroomed since publication of a well-validated feedback orientation scale developed by Lindebaum and Levy (2010). Much of the organizational psychology literature has, in the past, focused on broad motivational factors, such as the ability to control one’s work environment. It is now clear that understanding what helps employees perform as effectively as possible needs also to take into account the role of personality. As such, knowing more about feedback orientation could be of help both to organizations and those who work in those organizations.

In addition to reflecting personality traits such as openness to experience, feedback orientation has the feature of being changeable in response to “repeated cycles of learning and feedback use.” According to self-regulation theory, people constantly set goals, compare their performance against those goals, and then go on to change their behavior if it falls short of those goals to align more closely with them. Let’s say the project you developed did have a few tiny flaws that you knew about, but hoped wouldn’t be noticed (perhaps you forgot an important step). If you are open to feedback, you’ll agree that the problems need to be fixed, but, if not, you’ll insist that it’s fine as is, even if the flaws are pointed out to you. Self-regulation theory predicts that if this keeps happening, eventually you’ll decide to let some of that negative feedback into your conscious awareness and change accordingly.

Testing Feedback Orientation’s Role in Positive Adaptation

The purpose of the Old Dominion U. study was to refine the understanding of feedback orientation across the many studies that have investigated it and then to provide a framework in which this individual difference relates to the outcome of work satisfaction. Although conducted in the organizational psychology literature, there are clear links to feedback orientation as a general quality. The advantage of studying it in the workplace is that performance evaluation criteria tend to be much clearer than in daily life outside of work.

Capturing the willingness vs. unwillingness to receive feedback are the two key dimensions of “ego enhancement motives” and “ego defense motivation.” People high in ego enhancement actively seek feedback, using it to reinforce positive efforts and discourage efforts that don’t produce desired outcomes. In contrast, those high in ego defense motivation fear feedback that suggests they’re less than perfect. Therefore, they avoid any feedback at all.

Other factors contribute to your approach to feedback. As outlined in the original Feedback Orientation Scale, these include the following:

  • Utility: You see feedback as valuable for improving performance and reaching your goals.
  • Accountability: You feel obligated to make changes based on the feedback you receive.
  • Social awareness: You think it’s important to know how others perceive you.
  • Self-efficacy: You believe you have the ability to deal effectively with feedback.

In their overall model of feedback orientation, Katz et al. suggest that these qualities combine with ego defensiveness as well as with a related quality known as “implicit person theory” or the belief that people can change.

Now, putting this all together, their review of data from 46 independent samples involving 12,478 workers produced support for feedback orientation as a significant contributor to the outcome of job satisfaction but only after taking into account the role of feedback seeking. People higher in a positive feedback orientation seek feedback and, in turn, feel happier in their work. In other words, feedback may be painful in the moment, but, over time, it helps people feel better adjusted. Ego defense mechanisms were found to play an important role, in that those higher in ego enhancement motivation are more likely to seek feedback than are those who run away from it as fast as possible.

Using Feedback Orientation to Your Advantage

Now that you know that feedback helps more than it hurts, at least in the long run, the question becomes how to open your mind and your ego to knowing how your efforts are being perceived. You may be convinced that feedback is important, but it still can pinch if it doesn’t fit with your self-image.

Turning to that implicit person idea, it can be helpful to know that people can change. You don’t have to live with your defensiveness. Next, looking at self-efficacy, consider ways to bolster your sense that feedback won’t end up crushing you. You can also think of feedback as a way to protect yourself from emotional exhaustion. It takes effort to push feedback away, and, chances are, whatever you’re doing wrong isn’t going to improve on its own.

The Katz et al. study also investigated the role of leaders as the providers of feedback. It’s possible you have a person supervising you who just isn’t very good at this part of their job. For all you know, they themselves may hate getting feedback, so they provide it in a way that is not that empathic. Have a discussion with this person and share the fact that you find their feedback difficult to take. According to “leader member exchange” theory, those who give and those who take feedback both do better when they’re able to have frequent conversations, even if those involve negative feedback. Again, this finding emerged from a study in the workplace, but it could apply equally to other situations when you rely on the reaction you produce in others, such as wanting your best efforts in the kitchen to please your family.

To sum up, knowing your own attitude toward feedback can help you adapt more flexibly to the reactions you produce in others by your words and actions. Fulfillment isn’t just a straight pathway from you toward your goals. The input that other people can provide you with can help that pathway ultimately become more successful.

References

Linderbaum, B. A., & Levy, P. E. (2010). The development and validation of the Feedback Orientation Scale (FOS). Journal of Management, 36(6), 1372–1405 doi: 10.1177/0149206310373145

Ian M. Katz, Caroline M. Moughan, Cort W. Rudolph. Feedback orientation: A meta-analysis. Human Resource Management Review. 2023;33(4):100986. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hrmr.2023.100986

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