7 Ways to Act Effectively on Negative Feedback

No one enjoys receiving criticism or negative feedback. It especially tends to sting when it highlights something you need to change. Unfortunately, leadership requires us to be able to accept feedback effectively and respond appropriately if we wish to achieve success.
Recently, I gave a leader his 360 Leadership Development Assessment results. Over 30 people participated in his assessment to provide feedback on what they saw as his strengths, as well as his opportunities for improvement. When I reviewed the strengths from the assessment with this leader, the feedback was well received. He confidently agreed with the feedback related to his strengths. We were quickly moving along and positively accepting feedback.


The problem quickly arose when we flipped the page to review his lowest rated competencies and his biggest opportunities for improvement. We had 90 minutes to review his assessment, and it had taken about 7 minutes to review his strengths. I spent the remaining 83 minutes listening to him tell me why his boss, peers, and direct reports were all wrong. Instead of taking advantage of an opportunity to strengthen his leadership skills, he went on the defensive.


His lowest competency was: Generates enthusiasm with team members in his department. On a 1 to 10 scale, this leader scored 5.93, nearly 1.5 points below the overall PBS Benchmark and nearly 3.0 points below the Best of the Best Benchmark.


Some of the reasons he gave me to invalidate the feedback included:

  • His boss doesn’t listen to him or approve the resources for the initiatives he knows would improve his department and the organization
  • He was hired to take over a department that has employees that are not qualified to do their jobs
  • His old organization was great and understood him, and did what he said needed to be done without any pushback
  • His peers grew up in this organization and don’t know what a great organization really is
  • Most of his employees need to be fired but HR won’t help him take the necessary actions


After listening to this depressing diatribe, I easily understood why his ability to generate enthusiasm had been rated so low. Not only did he not create enthusiasm, he radiated depressing energy.


“Are you able to accept constructive feedback?” This may be one of the best and toughest questions that someone has ever asked me in front of a group of highly-successful peers. My friend Randy Gage, a New York Times best-selling author, asked me this very question. He then went on to tell me he didn’t feel I truly believed in the value I created and brought to our clients.


And, that until I truly did believe in the value and difference I make in the lives of the leaders and organizations I work with, I was going to have an upward battle in convincing others to follow my advice to build organizations where employees love to come to work.


When someone throws in an F bomb and nails you with this type of feedback in front of 12 other top professionals in the consulting industry, you have a choice; Do you take the feedback and say, “Maybe he’s right, what can I learn from this?” or do you come up with a list of excuses like the leader in the above example?


It hit hard, but I’m grateful to have people in my life that make me ask myself questions like, “Maybe they’re right and I’m the problem?” (My wife Kathleen would agree that me asking this one question has helped build a successful marriage) and, “If, just maybe, this feedback is true, what can I do differently to improve?”


Are you a leader who can take feedback?  Here are 7 tips that will enable you to be a leader who not only accepts feedback, but effectively puts it into action:


Ask for feedback often. Effective questions include;

  • What do you feel is going well or right in the organization or our department?
  • What are the areas we could improve on to make the organization or team even stronger?
  • As a leader, what do you feel I’m doing well or right?
  • What are the areas that, if I improved, would make me an even stronger leader?
  • What do you need more of from me as your leader? What do you need less of from me?


Shut up and listen. When people give you feedback, the roles for each individual are crystal clear. The role of the person giving feedback is to talk. The role of the leader receiving the feedback is to shut up and listen. When a leader confuses the role and talks, rather than listens, it discourages and prevents the person from giving honest feedback.


Don’t take the feedback personally. As hard as it admittedly is, you can’t take feedback personally. When you do, it puts you in the automated mindset of defending everything you do and why you do it. Instead, get up in the balcony. Just like someone who is watching a play or symphony, get off the stage and try to view the feedback as a third-party observer. Most of the times when I’ve been able to view feedback from the balcony, I come to the same conclusion as the person providing the feedback – They have a good point and are probably, actually, right.


Recognize the good intentions. Remember, the only people who will give you tough feedback are the people who really care about your success. People who tell you only what they know you want to hear don’t really care about you…they only care about themselves and appearing successful in the leader’s eyes. One of the biggest mistakes we see leaders make in their career is not knowing who really cares about their success. In the example that I started this blog with, the person who was trying to help this leader was a Board Member who cared about his success the most. Unfortunately, the Executive Director viewed this help as micro-management and not someone who cared enough to help him become an even stronger leader.


Ask clarifying questions. Instead of defending why you do what you do, ask clarifying questions to gain more information and help you better understand their point of view. Asking questions opens up a conversation, gives people more confidence to give feedback, and increases your pool of information so you have the ability to take the most appropriate actions.


Thank people for their feedback. If you get in the habit of thanking people for caring enough about you to give you honest feedback, you will always know the truth. My favorite line to respond with, whether it’s to my wife, my children, my staff or a client is, “That was tough feedback. Thanks for caring enough about me to share that feedback, because I needed to hear it!”


Take action. Being good at accepting feedback is one thing… but taking action on the feedback you received is what separates great leaders. As a leader and a parent, one of the toughest pieces of feedback I ever received was that someone was “using” me. When the person told me this feedback point blank, my initial gut feeling was anger. As I mulled over the feedback, I realized they were right. That feedback was given to me at 4:00 pm on a Monday afternoon. On Tuesday at 8:00 am, I went to the person who gave me the feedback and thanked them for their feedback. I told them they were right, and outlined the actions I intended to take, and the help I would need from them to successfully implement the change.


As a leader, I feel my success is in direct proportion to the people who have the guts to give me honest feedback. My family, my clients, my team members, and my friends have all cared about me enough to give me the honest feedback I need to continue developing into a stronger leader.

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