How the Right Action on Constructive Feedback Empowers Leaders

BY Kathy Crosett
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It’s never easy to give feedback. And it may be even more difficult to receive feedback, positive or negative. Organizational leaders can set an example for team members by showing how to receive feedback and how to act on it.

Leaders already know it’s difficult to get honest feedback on their performance. Few employees want to risk giving their bosses news that could be perceived as a personal criticism. Who can blame them? Offering criticism to an overly sensitive individual could be a career-​ending move.

Your first job as a leader is to show, by example, that you won’t take negative feedback as a personal attack. Ask a team member or colleague you trust to give some honest criticism on a specific task, like the project you just finished. In a group setting, encourage them to speak freely about whether you were too insistent on people working late to meeting the deadline. Regardless of the answer, thank them and tell them you’re going to think about how you can change. This action demonstrates your ability to be fair and open-minded.

Constructive Feedback

Many people don’t take the next step when receiving feedback. That step is to accept what you’ve heard as constructive, not negative, feedback. In a column for Harvard Business Review, executive coach Peter Bregman points out that too many of us let our egos get in the way of working through constructive feedback.

Avoid Invalidation

When you don’t want to accept the feedback, you might turn to invalidation techniques. This means trying to get feedback from someone else that is completely different from what you heard at first. If you can get another team member to say you didn’t insist on people staying late, you’ve invalidated the feedback and the person who gave it. Good luck trying to get that person to tell you the truth again.

Avoid Rejection

You might also reject the feedback by saying, “That’s true. And it’s exactly what was necessary to get the job done.” Bregman says this is an example of taking pride in a characteristic that your team has complained about. A reaction like this is certain to cause your team members to talk behind your back and to start looking for a different job.

Embrace Change

The next time a team member mentions what you might have done differently, remember to take the important step of thanking them. As Bregman states, “When you stop defending against it externally, you actually stop defending against it internally too.” 

Remind yourself regularly to act on the feedback instead of giving in to one of your ego defenses. Don’t reject, invalidate or intimidate as a way of failing to change. In the case of our example, stop and think before asking your team members to work late. Is it absolutely necessary? If so, acknowledge that you’ve been told this is a habit your team doesn't appreciate. Promise your team you’ll work harder in the future to avoid the problem and ask them to keep reminding you. Maintaining this open dialogue and being self-​aware are the keys to successfully changing.