How Inspirational Leaders Can Accept Feedback with Finesse
Updated: Oct 7, 2023
That surge of adrenaline. An increase in heart rate. The feeling of dread in your stomach.
Do you experience any of these before you step into a meeting with your boss for a performance evaluation or feedback session?
Isn't it worse when you get a mysterious request from your boss, “Can you stop by my office for a second, I need to chat with you about something.” (Please, if you ever do this to any of your employees, give them a clue as to what you want to discuss.)
For me, it doesn’t matter how confident I feel about my performance. I get lightheaded as my mind races a mile a minute trying to determine what I screwed up. Every. Single. Time.
Physical Response to Feedback
In an article written for Forbes called Fight, Flight, Freeze: Our Brains on Feedback, Dr. Peter Stewart describes why our bodies have a physiological response to the very thought of being on the receiving end of a feedback session. It’s all rooted in our body’s survival instincts.
People respond to stressful situations by freezing, fleeing and fighting. In the primitive days, these responses increased the chances for survival. Our modern day threats are different, but our bodies still respond to stress in the same way.
The workplace can be stressful for people. “To the primitive part of our brains, the modern workplace is at least as threatening as the jungle,” Dr. Stewart says.
It may be the nature of the work - for example, first responders never know what the day may bring. It may be the challenge of working with difficult customers or navigating office politics. And it may be having to receive feedback about their work performance.
Take a Deep Breath and Prepare
Just knowing you might hear something you don’t want to hear will activate that stress response. The stress response is normal even when you know it’s coming, and elevated when you don’t expect it.
It’s okay. Take a breath and using self-soothing calming techniques that work for you.
Then do a self-assessment. What feedback would you give yourself if you were your boss?
This isn’t a time to prepare excuses, but to anticipate where the conversation might go. It may end up going exactly where you expect it or in a completely different direction, but at least you’ve thought about it.
Be ready to offer solutions and ask questions. And remember, the purpose of feedback is to let you know how you’re doing. If part of that feedback provides you direction on how to grow and improve what you’re doing, accept it with an open mind.
Oh No! I Just Received Unsolicited Feedback!
Sometimes we get caught off guard with unsolicited feedback. It’s usually unexpected, like the mysterious summons from your boss to stop by and chat about something.
Feedback can come from your customers. People who are very displeased with something are more likely to leave feedback, and they usually do so while they’re still angry about it.
The feedback you get from customers should be considered carefully. Understand where they’re coming from and determine whether their expectations are reasonable. They might offer something that you never thought of before that could really improve the way you do things.
Customers and bosses aren’t the only people who might offer you feedback. Your colleagues, mentors, peers and employees might offer unsolicited feedback as well.
If the feedback is delivered to you in person, you must keep your cool and listen to them. If the feedback is delivered to you in writing, it gives you a chance to think it over before you react.
Show you’re receptive to feedback by listening to them.
Employ Your Best Listening
Listening is not a skill many people do well.
Have you ever tried talking to someone when their phone beeps? The next thing you know, they’re looking at their phone in the middle of your conversation! That’s no different than interrupting you mid-sentence to start talking to someone else.
Another example of a poor listener is someone who is thinking about what they’re going to say next instead of focusing on the speaker. Or they try to finish someone else’s sentence.
Chances are, you wouldn’t do this during a feedback session. But that doesn’t mean you are giving your undivided attention to what is being said. If your brain is still in threat-response mode, you may not be processing information rationally. You may still be focused on what possible negative things your boss might have to say.
Sam Horn offers a technique to become better listeners in her book, Got Your Attention: How to Create Intrigue and Connect with Anyone. She describes the steps using the acronym LISTEN.
L - Look, Lean and Lift: You should look at the speaker, lean in to the conversation and lift your eyebrows. This is how you ensure your body language indicates you are listening.
I - Ignore Everything Else: Avoid looking at the clock in the room or letting your eyes wander. Stay focused on the conversation.
S - Suspend Judgment: Don’t stop listening just because you don’t agree with what they’ve started to say. Hear them out. As Sam Horn points out, “You don’t know what they’re going to say until after they’ve said it.” Give yourself time to think about what they said.
T - Take Notes: It shows you’re listening and gives you something to reference later. And it can prevent your mind from wandering.
E - Empathize: Try to understand where they’re coming from to better appreciate what they have to say. Again, this doesn’t mean you have to agree, but at least it frames why they’re saying it.
N - No Buts about It: When you respond, avoid saying something like, “I hear what you’re saying, but…” The word but indicates you don’t really hear it. If you are listening, you won’t use the word but.
Leaving the Door Open to Accept Feedback
Don’t be too proud or too afraid to seek feedback. I can empathize with the reluctance to seek feedback from bosses and can very much understand the fear of seeking feedback from subordinates.
It’s easy to walk around thinking, “My subordinates will let me know if I’m not doing something right.”
But when was the last time you went to your boss to tell him he needs to do better? Most people aren’t going to do that. So it’s on you as the leader to open the door to that conversation.
You can ask people directly for input on what you can do differently or better. It’s easier if you ask about specific things, like how you handled a project or a specific skill. Be sure to employ the LISTEN steps listed above when they take you up on that offer.
You can also seek formal feedback from your subordinates. Check with your human resources department to see if a process exists for your organization. Alternatively, you could consider doing a 360 evaluation. This allows your boss, peers, colleagues and subordinates to provide their perspectives and insight into your strengths and weaknesses so you can hone in on areas to improve.
How to Encourage Feedback from Your Subordinates
As an Air Force squadron commander, I am required to offer a climate assessment survey to my squadron each year. Called the Defense Organizational Climate Survey, it is anonymously completed, and any personally identifiable information included in the free responses are removed before I get to see the results. But to be statically relevant, a certain percentage of my squadron must complete it. This is a challenge when the survey is optional.
This survey triggers my fight or flight response. The comments in the free responses can be brutal! Yet, every year, I find myself begging my squadron to complete the survey even as I privately hope no one does.
Before I review the results, I tell myself, “Only the disgruntled will fill this out. I need to know what my blind spots are.” Truthfully, no amount of preparation or pep talk will every make the heart-pounding reaction disappear.
But I've learned a few lessons after having done this five times.
1. Make yourself approachable. If you’re unapproachable, no amount of saying, “You can always come to me if you have any concerns,” will make anyone truly believe you mean it.
2. Show you’re open to feedback. Again, you can’t just say it. Someone brave enough to test the waters might offer a suggestion and if you acknowledge the suggestion or even implement it, it will show that you’re open to feedback. And this will lead to other people feeling comfortable enough to offer feedback.
3. Do what you say you’re going to do. It shows you’re trustworthy. People are more likely to provide feedback to someone they trust.
Being a transparent and approachable leader with integrity makes a difference. Subordinates see this and are more willing to provide feedback. My last climate assessment survey had the highest participation rate I’d ever seen. I attribute this to my command team doing what we say we will do. People were willing to share their thoughts and even followed-up in person to let us know they were the ones who wrote certain comments in the survey.
Even though I was terrified of the survey results, and even though the negative feedback is what I remember most, I appreciated the opportunity to seek and receive feedback from my squadron.
How to Process Feedback
Leaders will receive feedback and not all of it will be positive. Before we fall into a rabbit hole of negativity bias and believe we’re just not good at what we do, we should take a step back and try to evaluate the information as objectively as possible.
In his book Leadership Gold, John C. Maxwell offers the following steps to process negative feedback:
Know Yourself: This is all about being self-aware. Know who you are, what your strengths and areas for improvement are. Be realistic about this.
Change Yourself: This is about taking responsibility for your self-improvement. It can hurt to have your areas for improvement validated by someone else, or ones you didn’t know about brought to light. But at the end of the day, receiving constructive feedback helps you focus on what you need to work on.
Accept Yourself: Be comfortable with who you are. While it’s difficult to not worry about what people think of you when those people are giving you constructive feedback, you cannot assess your self-worth based on someone else’s evaluation. You can still grow and change to become the best version of yourself, but don’t try to pretend to be someone you’re not.
Forget Yourself: Stop focusing on yourself. When offered constructive criticism, don’t try to defend yourself. Acknowledge the suggestions and make improvements so you can be a better leader to serve others.
All of this boils down to being secure in who you are and having the confidence to change for the better.
Seek Feedback to Get Better
Just as we offer feedback to our subordinates so they can grow and improve, we should also seek feedback to grow and improve. Even though our body might have a visceral response to it, we need to push through that and LISTEN with an open mind.
As an inspirational leader, when you receive feedback, you need to be confident in who you are and be willing to change for the better.
Comment below: Which of John Maxwell’s steps is the most challenging for you when it comes to processing constructive feedback and what can you do to overcome this?