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How do Great Leaders Handle Negative Feedback?

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The ultimate purpose of giving someone feedback is to help them get better at something … to improve their performance. But often times, feedback and how it is delivered leaves the recipient feeling devalued, deflated, and defeated. Ill-delivered feedback has a far-reaching impact. Not only does it impact the team’s morale but it affects the individual’s level of engagement. Ongoing negative feedback often results in employees becoming actively disengaged in their jobs. That is a tragedy … especially when the purpose of feedback is improved performance.

I’ve read numerous books, articles, and blogs on how to “give” effective feedback, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything on strategies for “receiving” feedback. However, I am convinced there is a right and wrong way to “receive” feedback. How someone delivers the feedback to you is completely out of your control. How you receive the feedback is every bit within your control.

The following is a creative and healthy process that will help you change the way you think about feedback or feedback that is delivered negatively.

  1. Change the way you think about feedback. Rather than thinking all feedback is negative … what if you believed that most feedback is productive and some people know how to communicate feedback better than others. That is powerful because you are setting the mental expectation that some people will deliver productive feedback in a positive way … and some will not.
  2. Accept the fact that the person providing the feedback may have good intentions, but their delivery is lacking. This thought process starts an important shift in the direction of this conversation. Instead of focusing on how horrible the feedback is making you feel, you start to focus on how that person needs to learn how to give better feedback. Understand? The negative emphasis is no longer about you but rather the negative delivery.
  3. Approach the feedback with an “open mind.” What if the information that is shared actually helps you to improve your performance or helps you become a more effective leader? Just what if …?
  4. Listen and seek first to understand. Don’t get defensive, argue, put people down, or get caught up in the conversation trying to prove a point. A defensive response changes the whole tone of the meeting. And now the very result you didn’t want is the result you will get. Keep an open mind and listen to the feedback. What is the point of the feedback? What is the value to you (personally and professionally) and to the organization if you improve in this area? Listen, understand the purpose of the feedback, and stay focused on the result … not the person’s delivery.
  5. Influence a productive outcome. While you can’t control how the feedback is delivered, I am convinced you can still influence the direction of the conversation. If the conversation appears to be taking a negative turn, rather than making statements (or worse … excuses), learn to ask questions. For example, What are your expectations of me in this situation? What are some ways in which I could improve? What does “success” look like? In the future, how could I approach this differently? What other ideas or suggestions do you have for me? Remember to keep your questions future-oriented, maintain a positive body language, and stay focused on the result!
  6. Thank them and make a genuine commitment to do better. If the feedback was that you did a lousy job facilitating the team meeting yesterday, and this person gave you suggestions on things you could do differently in the future, change what you can change and ignore the rest. In most cases they may never know. But in all cases, thank them for their feedback.
  7. Ask for permission to check back with them at a later time. Marshall Goldsmith talks about leading from a place of perception. This simply means it is much easier for you to change your behavior than it is to change a person’s perception of your behavior. Think about it. If you go back in two months to this same person and ask them “how am I doing at facilitating our team meetings?” and they respond with a resounding “great job,” then you win! If you go back to them and they say you are making progress and keep up the good work … then you still win! In either case, you are influencing their perception of you and that perception is one of commitment, dedication and excellence.

I understand that receiving feedback can be awkward and challenging. Don’t give up! Becoming a great leader demands a hunger to learn and improve, a willingness to be vulnerable at times, and a readiness to own up to shortcomings that you’re working hard to improve.