Most of us have difficulty with negative feedback. We tend to become angry, defensive, or hurt when people offer negative feedback. We blame the bearer of the information. Many leaders avoid it altogether, because it strikes at one of our most prized possessions–our image of self. We like to see ourselves as effective, skilled, and capable both with people and task. Negative feedback is an opportunity that should be welcomed and valued as a great gift.
It is unlikely we can prevent ourselves from experiencing negative emotion when people give us negative feedback, yet we need to welcome it anyway. Negative information is better than no information. If my people are unhappy, if my customers are unhappy, or if those closest to me are unhappy–it is better that I know than not know. At least if I know I can do something about it.
In fact, as leaders we should welcome negative feedback and even encourage it. On one hand negative feedback is potentially hurtful and upsetting. On the other hand it is an opportunity. Complaints and grievances against us are opportunities to reflect, clarify who we are, and to envision something new and better.
Here are some ideas on how to turn negative information into positive opportunities:
1. Accept it. This is how others see you. It is not wrong or right; bad or good; it just is. Refuse to take it personally. It is information. How do you want to best use this information to help others, yourself, and your organization (or family)?
2. Become a listener. Invite information from those who have spoken negatively without defending yourself. Let your focus be to care about their well-being and to understand them fully. Determine what they need from you. Are you seeing them as important? Are you giving value to their needs and concerns? This doesn’t mean agreeing with them or satisfying all of their wants. It means you see them as important and you value them.
3. Examine the tone that you set. Are you approachable? Are people comfortable talking to you? This will help people to offer potentially negative information to you so you can act upon it. If you are not approachable, people will talk to others about you, but they not express directly to you.
4. Are you seeing people in terms of their faults or in terms of their needs? If you are a fault finder you will tend to dismiss feedback from others as unimportant. If you are responsive to the needs of others, you will see their feedback as important information. Your ability to care about and understand others is an invitation for them to be concerned for you. They will want to be helpful to you.
Excellent leadership must always be reflective. As leaders, we must ask ourselves: “How am I doing? How are the people I affect doing? Am I consistently creating a positive and healthy environment?” This kind of reflection causes us to grow and reach higher levels of success. Reflection will inevitably involve the reception of some negative feedback.
I coached a senior executive who was having some difficulty with his staff. I used a 360 degree assessment to get feedback from his employees, colleagues, and the CEO. He was horrified at the results. People painted a picture of him that was selfish and not responsive to others. This man had high standards and was known as a kind and generous person in his personal life. The negative feedback served as a wake up call. He was thankful for this gift of negative feedback and he immediately began changing his way of being with people at work.
Learning isn’t always painful. We learn from our successes too. My senior executive found immediate successes when he changed his way of being. People became more helpful and responsive to him. His colleagues greatly respected his willingness to receive and act upon the feedback.
When people criticize or complain about us it is best to face it without defense, and take action to help them and to improve our effectiveness. Negative feedback is not always accurate, but whether it is accurate or not, dealing with it honestly is an opportunity we don’t want to miss.