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Hard Truth in the C-Suite: 7 Ways for Leaders to Embrace Negative Feedback

By welcoming criticism as a teaching moment, leaders can step out of their echo chambers and strengthen their companies—and reputations.

Two women sitting on a couch talking to each other.

​Company leaders are of two minds when it comes to corrective feedback. They understand the importance of it for employee productivity and career growth, but they often don't want to hear it themselves. 

"Executives are surrounded by people who are conditioned to tell them what they want to hear," said Steven Blue, CEO of Miller Ingenuity, a manufacturer in Winona, Minn. "When they're confronted with someone who tells them like it is, they are offended, taken aback and stay in denial."

While few people like to give negative feedback, most people do want to receive it, according to a Harvard Business Review survey. In fact, by a margin of roughly three to one, employees say corrective feedback does more to improve their performance than positive feedback does.

While leaders know they need to deal with negative feedback, some absorb it better than others.

Michael Toebe, founder at Reputation Quality, a Kansas-based professional services firm, said senior leaders often believe that, given their high position, they have the best grasp of their company's internal machinations and mission.

"Negative feedback, in their mind, just was not fully informed and in some cases, disrespectful," said Toebe. "Thus, ego was certainly a variable in their reaction."

One primary reason CEOs and other leaders bristle at negative feedback is that they tend to live in echo chambers, hearing a chorus of "Yes" and "Good idea" all day long. To be successful, they need to receive the flip side of that praise and agreement.  

"Executives should get a 360-degree review of their strengths and weaknesses," said Blue, "although it's best to keep the reviewers anonymous so they will provide candid feedback."

Many years ago, when Blue worked for a company that later became Rockwell International, management sent him to what his fellow executives called "charm school."

"My subordinates, peers and supervisor all completed candid assessments," he recalled. "I spent a week there, and while I was there, the other participants did the same thing, along with the psychologists that were observing us. On feedback day, it was a humbling experience, but it taught me the value of candid feedback from all around."

The Path Forward: 7 Steps

Whether it's a 360-degree review, a corporate board delivering criticism or a Wall Street analyst issuing a "sell" critique, company leaders need to learn how to take criticism as a learning experience and apply negative feedback in a way that builds up the company—and their own careers.

To adopt the best stance on absorbing negative feedback, leaders advise taking these action steps:

1. Emphasize transparency

First, give your employees permission to tell you the truth. Otherwise, they won't do it. Next, truly listen and ask for clarification. Thank them for the feedback and invite them to provide it anytime.

2. Be open and stay cool

Recipients of negative feedback sometimes unknowingly show annoyance with their facial expressions, tone of voice or other reactions.

"That's the worst thing you can do," Blue said. "Keep calm and cool. Be ready to hear what you don't want to hear. But remember this: What you don't want to hear is exactly what you need to hear."

3. Don't make any rash moves

An executive's best move after receiving harsh feedback is to hit the "pause" button and not respond immediately.

"That may mean writing the feedback down so that the focus is on the written word," said Kim Crowder, founder of Kim Crowder Consulting in Carmel, Ind. "Once the input is shared, think through it and ask critical questions of the person providing feedback so there are clear understandings."

Asking the feedback provider for specific instances is a tangible way to understand how your actions impact others.

"From there, step away and do what needs to change to address it through self-reflection, apologizing and showing change through actions, if necessary," Crowder said. "Organizations that actively follow their code of conduct provide accountability when issues arise."

4. View feedback as a gift to eliminate blind spots

 Writer and speaker James Clear once said, "The trick to viewing feedback as a gift is to be more worried about having blind spots than hearing about them."

So reframe the feedback in your mind as a path to identifying those blind spots, not as criticism.  

"No sane leader wants to have blind spots because it's dangerous to the mission, company, board, shareholders and a leader's job and career," Toebe said. "Exercising humility and curiosity isn't always an easy practice, but doing so should be the default reaction, as well as a thoughtful response to the stress and sting of negative feedback."

5. Assume positive intent

Don't take negative feedback as a personal attack. Instead, take a step back, allow yourself time to process the feedback and truly listen to what you are hearing.

"If you don't understand or agree with the feedback, ask for examples or ask more questions. Recognize feedback as a sign of respect," said Kristin Mann, senior vice president at Raines International in Dayton, Ohio. "If the board is sharing their feedback openly, then they aren't having those conversations behind closed doors. … They are talking to you directly. They want the company to succeed, and they are giving you the feedback needed to recognize the need for change."

6. Take negative feedback head-on

Executives should also remain authentic and self-aware of areas for growth.

"If the negative feedback is public, don't try to hide it," said Mann. "Discuss it head-on with those directly impacted. Take accountability, identify how to address the concerns and explain how you'll be responsible through any changes across your team or the organization. Then, provide the room for conversation and follow-up."

7. Build a checklist

 Izzy Galicia, president and CEO of the Incito Consulting Group in San Francisco, offers a checklist of best tips for executives handling negative feedback.

  • Break the negative cycle of suppressing negative feedback and create a culture where it is welcomed.
  • Encourage contrarian opinions. As Galicia rose through the ranks as an executive at Toyota, he was astonished to realize that company leaders provided an environment in which contrarian opinions were welcomed and embraced.
  • Recognize negative feedback for what it is—a chance to improve.
  • View problems as opportunities and infuse this mindset into the DNA of the organization.
  • Provide an environment that allows all employees to push back and provide feedback.

Galicia said C-level leaders who don't follow these steps can damage the entire organization.

"Our data shows that leaders that cannot handle negative comments tend to surround themselves with individuals that protect them as opposed to providing honest and constructive feedback," he said. "This creates dysfunction across the organization and, even more importantly, generates huge vulnerabilities that may go unnoticed or even buried, causing a huge blind spot that may be critical to the organization."

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth (John Wiley & Sons, 2001) and The Career Survival Guide (McGraw Hill, 2004).


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