How Leaders Can Take Feedback in Stride

Anybody in the C-suite knows handling criticism is part of the job. But ensuring that you hear honest opinions requires planning.

There are probably people who approach critical feedback at the office with excitement and enthusiasm, but I’ve yet to meet them. 

More likely, the prospect of receiving feedback involves at least a momentary flash of dread: A sense that a misstep you weren’t aware of will be exposed, a shortcoming will be amplified out of proportion, you’ll stand accused of something you weren’t responsible for, or that whoever’s delivering the criticism has it in for you. 

Being in a leadership position doesn’t necessarily make the criticism easier to handle. During one-on-one feedback sessions, a few surprises may emerge. And the power dynamic can make it hard to determine if you’re getting the full picture.

Take the lead in giving yourself constructive feedback first.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, facilitator and teacher Deborah Grayson Riegel discusses a few ways leaders can handle the feedback they get during such conversations and encourage that feedback to be more honest. 

One recurring theme in the article is that leaders should get ahead of the feedback session by recognizing some of their own shortcomings and be prepared to voice them. “Demonstrate your self-awareness by taking the lead in giving yourself constructive feedback first,” Riegel writes. A leader might say, for instance, that they can be overly methodical in the face of deadline pressure.

But your goal isn’t necessarily to look for agreement, or to steer the conversation toward a softer set of criticism as a way to avoid bigger shortcomings you need to address. It’s easier to get around this issue in a 360 performance review, which is generally conducted anonymously. There, it helps to keep the questions you ask relatively open ended. In a recent Society for Human Resource Management article on 360 reviews, HR chief and coach Jeff Nally suggested three straightforward questions a survey should ask: “What should this leader stop doing to be a better leader?” “What should this leader start doing to be a better leader?” “What should the leader continue doing?”

There are two good things about this approach. One is that it frames the questioning strictly around matters of leadership, which erases the anxiety that criticism will be off-topic or out of proportion. Second, it avoids any kind of leading questions, freeing reports to express their top concerns—with room to express what a leader is doing right as well.

But whether you’re receiving feedback directly or anonymously, one crucial (and often neglected step) is acting on it. The pandemic era is filled with workplace stories about employees constantly bombarded with pulse surveys and town halls where they’re asked to share their opinions about work arrangements, fairness, job roles, and more, only to feel like those opinions get ignored. That’s just as true with leadership assessments, Reigel writes: “Soliciting feedback without addressing it and taking action on it quickly erodes trust, as it undermines your sincerity and reliability.” And if you don’t want to be seen as sincere and reliable, why are you asking the question?

What does your leadership feedback process look like, and how do you respond to what you hear? Share your experiences in the comments. 

(Panuwat Dangsungnoen/iStock/Getty Images)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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