Receiving feedback with grace is a valuable leadership skill, yet many managers struggle with it. While we’re often quick to critique others, being on the receiving end involves an entirely different set of emotional and psychological skills.

Three Types of Feedback

Leadership consultants Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen describe three types of feedback conversations in Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well  (Penguin Books, 2014):

  • Appreciatory: Benefits: uplifting, acknowledging, reassuring

Pitfalls: can be unspecific or unclear, can be patronizing or inconsistent with the leader’s or organization’s values (a means to an end)

  • Instructive: Benefits: can teach and allow growth in skills, knowledge, capabilities or contribution to the organization

Pitfalls: can be misunderstood, misguided or self-serving (know-it-all)

  • Evaluative: Benefits: can establish a standard and clarify expectations

Pitfalls: can be harsh, hurtful or unfair

The Driving Force of Resistance

Humans are wired to avoid unsettling issues and, consciously or unconsciously, will avoid pain. These natural survival traits drive us as far away from the feedback loop as possible.

Thus, most leaders are reluctant to receive feedback—a continuing workplace challenge. We generally don’t want to receive difficult information about ourselves, so issues go unresolved and challenges grow deeper. Staff is afraid to approach certain subjects, and trust and unity suffer.

Fortunately, leaders can learn to master emotional conflicts through coaching. Fears can be converted into strengths, thereby creating positive results.

Four Challenges of Receiving Feedback

Leaders must address four primary challenges to conquer their natural resistance to feedback, note Stone and Heen:

1. Listen and learn.

As you receive feedback, consider the positive side of the coin. There’s always something to learn about yourself, and the person providing feedback is trying to help—not hurt—you.

Focusing on personal and organizational improvement can help you overcome resistance, despite any fears or anxieties. Negative feelings needn’t override your ability to learn from feedback. View feedback through the lens of excelling and improving.

When assessing feedback, note that people say and interpret things differently. They use different verbiage and phrases. What’s heard may not be what’s meant. Asking questions helps achieve clarity. Taking sufficient time before you respond will afford an information-sharing dialogue. You’ll be rewarded with a new perspective, some of the best learning you can receive. There may be something you’re ready to see now that you couldn’t accept in the past.

2. Recognize and manage resistance to feedback.

Being aware of your emotional needs and insecurities is the first step in conquering them. Your need to be accepted may present as three significant fears, all closely related:

  • Fear of having to change: Change represents the unknown, and most people dread it. We lack control and are anxious about things going wrong. Change implies your current system is inadequate, so does this mean you’re inadequate?
  • Fear of failure: Significant failure can be personally debilitating for some and regarded as a career killer. If your identity is strongly tied to your position, you may view any failures at work as failure as a person.
  • Fear of rejection: The strongest fear of all, rejection is erroneously viewed as worthlessness or purposelessness. There are few more distressing feelings.

Our emotional needs and fears may cause us to exaggerate or misrepresent the feedback we receive. We turn a specific negative event into a character flaw, engaging in all-or-nothing thinking, note business professors James R. Detert and Ethan R. Burris in “Don’t Let Your Brain’s Defense Mechanisms Thwart Effective Feedback” (Harvard Business Review blog, August 2016). Black-and-white thinking can induce “catastrophizing” (believing things are worse than they are).

3. Be confident when challenged.

As you receive feedback, three triggers will prompt you to categorize the provider’s comments, note Stone and Heen:

  • Truth Triggers: If feedback is erroneous or off base, you can face it objectively and depersonalize it. Something that’s clearly untrue can be sorted out and dissected. Prompt the feedback giver to explain further or provide examples that work truth back into the equation.
  • Relationship Triggers: Feelings about the feedback giver can taint your perspective, depending on trust levels. Do your feelings call the giver’s judgment into question? Recognizing this pitfall and filtering its effect can help you detach from the relationship and focus on the true issues.
  • Identity Triggers: Feelings of inadequacy often trigger self-worth woes. Always remember that your leadership position doesn’t determine your worth. Questioning ourselves after negative feedback is normal, but relying on the value you’ve offered throughout your life can bring assurance. Screen out as many emotional components as possible.

4. Grow despite unfair feedback.

Personal growth may be the last thing you think about after receiving negative feedback. Instead of seeing unfair remarks as a setback, choose to view them as an opportunity to grow smarter, stronger and wiser. The following strategies can help:

  • Filter input. Which information is credible? Which feedback strains credulity? Discard comments you believe to be invalid, using some type of objective measuring stick.
  • Try to see the feedback giver’s perspective. People have reasons for making statements. Depersonalize their comments to isolate nuggets of truth.
  • Identify your blind spots, and do something about them. If you receive similar feedback from multiple sources, there’s likely something you’re not seeing.
  • Be mindful of your historic response patterns. Others see them even if you don’t. Assess your emotions soberly to determine if they’re justified.

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