How to handle feedback that you don't like - SmartBlog on Leadership 7.14.2014

As a leader, you have certainly been the recipient of some unwelcome feedback. The comments may have focused in on your leadership style, specific actions or comments of yours, your attitudes or some combination thereof. Perhaps it arrived in the form of criticism. Worse yet, it may have come inscribed on a pink farewell note. Even if the remark was delivered with constructive intent, you may have resented the experience and sought opportunities to get back at the source of your reproach, or at least gain satisfaction from his or her next slip up.

All of this is normal. Some may call it natural or even healthy. But as someone who has received his fair share of criticism over the years, my suggestion is that you get what you can from the comments and then move on, as quickly and completely as possible.

There is nothing to be gained from harboring negative thoughts. Nor does it pay to hold out for some form of vindication. The best form of payback that you can offer is by doing a better job the next time.

But it’s really not about getting payback anyway. Such thinking is limiting, and focuses you completely in the wrong direction. When we think of retribution or even simply hold onto some form of animosity, we allow ourselves to remain stuck, and focus on events that have already occurred. The best way forward is to be forward thinking, and to see how we can make today and every day the very best and productive of your career.

I am not suggesting that all criticism is fair and well intentioned. Sometimes it is motivated by insecurity. At other times it may be driven by jealousy. Certainly, you are not obligated to gladly and willingly accept everyone’s slap on the cheek and then turn your head for one more on the other side. But we must be able to separate the intent and words of the criticizer from what we ultimately do with her message.

Keep in mind that almost every form of criticism – even that which is borne from malintent – can teach us something powerful about ourselves. Certainly, if someone has it “out for you” he will seize upon an area of perceived or accepted weakness in order to build a credible case. When an attribute or behavior is singled out, let me assure you that there’s at least some kernel of truth in what’s being said. Doing something about that issue, including finding out what’s rubbing people and taking steps to improve in that area, will serve you well long into the future, probably well after your relationship with the other party has ended.  

So, the next time that someone approaches you with some unwanted feedback consider doing the following:

  1. Listen well – Hear them out without interruption. Mirror back what you heard for clarification. If there is something that you disagree with, hold it until the end. This way you validate them and open further lines of communication. It’s always best for the concern to come directly to you rather than to others. 
  2. Respond carefully – Try to avoid sounding defensive. Leave your ego to the side and accept warranted concerns as well as viable advice. If you are unsure about the validity of feedback or what to do with it, ask for time to respond. Make sure to get back to the other party in a timely fashion and with a real game plan (see below). And then ask for feedback about the plan.
  3. Thank them – Let them know that you appreciate the fact that they brought this matter to you and didn’t go around you. They easily could have; it would have been less risky and more comfortable for them. Let them know that you appreciate this growth opportunity.
  4. Seek more feedback – Chances are that others also have opinions about the matter at hand. Seek out people whose opinion you trust and try to gauge the broader impact of your actions, words, etc. Just how widespread is this concern?
  5. Do something – This may be the hardest part. No one likes to change. Hey, if your behaviors got you to the top why would they not keep you there? But we all know that leadership requires a whole different set of skills and sometimes we go into our posts without such training and awareness.  Seek to identify, alone or with a trusted confidant or coach, a set of actions that can help you grow as a leader.

We all want to hear that we’re doing well. Feedback is the breakfast of champions. But no one wants to be an emperor without clothes, or, worse yet, a dethroned emperor. Whether the feedback that you receive is solicited (ideal) or not, be sure to make good use of it, so that you can become the very best leader possible and lead an inspired and engaged team forward.