Feedback is an Acquired Taste_3x5 Leadership

By Bethany Nunnery, USMA Cadet

Our expressions of ‘an acquired taste’ are usually associated with complex food and drinks. However, diving deeper into the definition of an acquired taste, we find that it can incorporate many other things. A simple online definition search reports that an acquired taste is an appreciation for something unlikely to be enjoyed by a person who has not had substantial exposure to it. Feedback, I would argue, is an example of an acquired taste. Feedback is often unappreciated by many, especially when it is constructive, but with increased exposure to high quality feedback we can eventually begin to enjoy the value feedback brings. In this post, we explore why constructive feedback is so difficult, why it’s important, and how we increase our genuine appreciation for it.

Why Feedback Is So Hard

Constructive feedback is difficult to receive from superiors, peers, and subordinates, all for different reasons. But no matter who it is coming from, a large reason why feedback is so difficult is because of the process and hard work we put into the product or event being critiqued. Because of the immense amount of time, thought, and effort we put into our product, event, or lecture, it’s hard to hear constructive criticism from others uninvolved or maybe even uninterested in the process but who hold a stake in the outcome.

For example: I spent a night drafting out an elaborate email and course of action to send to another cadet I was working with regarding a complex task. After sending the email, my cadet superior approached me about it explaining to me what I should have done differently in my email as well as included him in the process. My immediate reaction was to explain to him the amount of time and effort I had put into that product and resort to anger and defensiveness. Looking back at this, I realized he was just trying to improve both the organization and me. However, I took it as a personal attack to the work I had put into it. Receiving this feedback made me reflect on why it was so hard to receive that feedback and why it’s generally hard to receive from all levels.

The differences between receiving feedback from different levels can include:

  • Superiors: When we receive constructive feedback from our superiors, our inner consequentialist naturally surfaces and we begin to think “will this affect my evaluation?”
  • Peers: For some of the same reasons that peer leadership is one of the most difficult types of leadership, peer feedback is just as difficult to receive. When we receive feedback from peers, we take it more personally, believing our peer is trying to lead us or critique us. We think they are putting themselves on a pedestal leading to a “you think you’re better than me” mindset. This will not only harm the relationship but the organization as well.
  • Subordinates: When we receive feedback from our subordinates, especially before we have a lot of practice receiving it, we may question if we can really be the leader our subordinates need. We second guess our competence in that position or question if our processes and systems are actually hurting the organization or team we are striving to improve.

How Do We Increase Our Appreciation for Feedback: A Two-Way Street?

Increasing our appreciation for constructive feedback as leaders requires us to develop our capacity for giving and receiving quality, constructive feedback better:

  • Giving Feedback: You can’t give feedback without being willing to receive it. More importantly, when giving your feedback there must be an intent to provide that person with quality feedback so they can use it to improve. Giving feedback out of spite, without context, or lacking a developmental purpose does more harm than good. I’ve learned that feedback must come from a place of love – both for the other person and our organization.
  • Receiving Feedback: You must allow others the opportunity to give you feedback for many different reasons. It will not only benefit you, but it benefits the person giving the feedback. It allows them an opportunity to improve their own confidence in confronting others to make themselves and the organization better. Therefore, it is almost more important to be a good receiver of the feedback. Receiving feedback allows you to practice taking it and digesting it. After doing this, you learn to use that feedback for its original intended use: to improve yourself for the future and for the rest of the organization. I always try to view feedback as a gift, no matter how hard it is to try and receive at times.

Why We Need to Acquire the Taste for Feedback

An inherent question with common acquired tastes tends to be: why do I need to acquire this taste? Why can’t I just not eat that food or not deal with constructive feedback? Increasing our appreciation for feedback so important for several reasons; it impacts personal and collective development in a few ways:

  • Increases Communication: Both giving and receiving feedback call us to have a face-to-face conversation with someone, usually an uncomfortable one. No matter if it is a positive or more constructive comment, it creates another direct touchpoint we have with our people, helping to build and maintain those important relationships. Hopefully over time, feedback conversations are no longer novel occurrences, but how we conduct daily business within our team.
  • Builds Trust: Increasing communication leads to an increase in trust. We begin to trust and appreciate those people in our life who are willing to provide that feedback to help us improve.
  • Encourages us Reflect and Become Self-Aware: Hearing from others about our strengths and weaknesses opens the door for self-reflection. It allows us to think more deeply about what we are doing well and and what we need to improve on, why we need to, and how we should do that. Doing this over time, it starts to come more naturally, and we become more self-aware on our own, not needing someone to constantly point it out to us.

Acquired Tastes Take Time!

Like most improvements, getting used to giving, receiving, and appreciating feedback takes time. This will not happen in one day, week, month, or even one year. Deliberately practicing the art of feedback is helping our future selves. The lessons we learn with every piece of feedback, good or bad, will only give us more to add to our toolbox for years down the road. With more practice, we get used to feedback and start to see how everything relates back to feedback, even with what seems like normal, everyday conversations. This practice allows us to think more analytically, using simple interactions as learning opportunities.

Feedback is not welcomed by everyone immediately, especially when it is negative. It is hard to hear what people do not like about us or the way we do things. However, quality exposure to feedback allows us to gain an appreciation for feedback and the value it has in our lives, making us better leaders for ourselves and our organization. With practice, we may not ever become perfect at giving or receiving feedback, but it will become more permanent in our lives. Without it, we will never improve to be the person we can be moving forward. Like an acquired taste, we don’t welcome feedback at first. We get a taste of it at first and we never want it again. But if we give and receive quality feedback on a constant basis, we not only get used to it, but we begin to appreciate it and how it changes our perspective.

Bethany is a cadet senior at the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point, NY. She currently serves as the executive officer for one of the four cadet regiments and has appreciated the impact that improved feedback loops have had on her own leadership growth as well as across her regimental staff. Bethany is a kinesiology major and an Army NCAA track / cross country athlete; she is excited about graduating in May 2020. Following her commissioning, she is excited to join the 173rd Airborne Brigade at Vincenza, Italy as a Quartermaster officer. The thoughts within this post are Bethany’s alone and do not reflect that of the USMA or US Army.

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  1. 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼 Excellent insights!!! Something everyone should read because a lot of us don’t know how to receive feedback or understand why it is so important!

  2. Very well said. A tool I wish I had at your age. Keep up the feedback coming!. Army leaders need to read and apply this with in their ranks.

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