In general, freelancers tend to have a unique relationship with feedback in that they can:
- Receive feedback from a wide range of clients and perspectives, which can help them continuously improve their craft in ways non-freelancers may not have access to;
- Fall into the feedback-giving trap by believing their role means they are expected only to receive rather than give and receive; and,
- Grow into skilled people pleasers that miss out on some of the profound benefits of processing feedback.
We will explore various dimensions of these three feedback elements in the context of freelancing, paying particular attention to how we can improve our feedback orientation. A classic concept from academic HR literature, feedback orientation "…refers to an individual's overall receptivity to feedback, including comfort with feedback, tendency to seek feedback and process it mindfully, and the likelihood of acting on the feedback to guide behavior change and performance improvement."
Why is improving feedback orientation important?
Before we dive in, let's cover briefly why freelancers should care about their feedback orientation in the first place. As a long-time freelancer, here are two reasons I've learned the hard way over the years.
First, many of us ventured into freelancing for the schedule autonomy and the ability to control variables that once felt out of our control. With this, there are times when the pendulum may swing a bit too far – to the point where we may forget, too quickly reject, or otherwise be so focused on shipping deliverables that we deprioritize the vital role feedback (including feedback from folks outside of our domain) can play in our development. Intentionally seeking and growing more comfortable with feedback can help us stay at the top of our field and build healthy relationships with our clients.
Second, going all-in on freelancing often means spending time on issues related to HR, accounting, etc. – elements your full-time employer would likely have systems to handle for you. In juggling it all, it can be far easier to quickly dismiss or accept feedback rather than take time to process it mindfully. In my experience, taking the time to build this discipline has led to making better decisions concerning the feedback I've received.
Let's now cover the three elements mentioned earlier: receiving feedback, the feedback-giving trap, and processing feedback.
Many feedback articles suggest that feedback givers hold the power in the relationship, but the evidence suggests otherwise. One study showed that 44% of managers found giving feedback stressful or difficult, with 21% avoiding giving negative feedback altogether. That same study showed that 37% avoid giving positive feedback as well.
What can freelancers take from this? Taking the lead in the feedback relationship by proactively and genuinely seeking it (and, of course, fielding it well the moment it comes your way) can ensure you get the feedback you need to keep improving. Feedback-seeking behavior is often positively correlated with positive working relationships. Research from Grant & Ashford, among others, frames feedback-seeking as a proactive behavior that can help individuals achieve their work goals.
The feedback-giving trap
Speaking again from my experience: once I better understood the feedback power dynamic and my role in it, I could expand my role in the relationship – from primarily receiver to both giver and receiver. After all, if you are proactively seeking feedback and making the giver feel safe in delivering it, you can also provide feedback about the feedback.
For example, rather than accepting or bypassing client feedback such as "I love what you came up with here," you can respond by saying, "I appreciate that. Thank you. It's important to me that I receive specific feedback because this helps me keep improving. Might you be able to explain what, in particular, you love about it?"
Generic "I love it" type feedback is often left on the table. As you improve your feedback orientation, you'll see generic feedback as a door to receiving the specific feedback you need.
Processing feedback can be considered an expansion of what you may typically think of as receiving – actively listening, asking great questions, and co-creating a psychologically safe space for feedback delivery. In this sense, processing is about how you feel, metabolize, and ultimately decide what to do with the feedback you receive.
This can take many forms. One is to take a somatic approach by bringing awareness to how particularly challenging feedback feels in your body and then trying to tease insights about why this is the case. Another form that can be used in tandem is to run the feedback you received through a feedback decision tree (I've found that visualizing each step in this decision tree can be especially helpful).
In addition to monetary payment, I encourage you to practice seeing feedback as another way your client pays you. This mindset could be the key to your continued evolution.
Cameron Conaway is a workplace feedback expert. His work has appeared in Harvard Business Review, NPR, and Stanford Social Innovation Review, among other publications.