Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Receiving Negative Feedback

As a leader, what skills do you use to receive negative feedback?

On October 12, I did a post about encouraging pushback.  The intent of that post was to stimulate thinking about how we encourage a range of thinking among those we lead.  Today, though, I want to address receiving negative feedback that is about you or the school/organization that you lead.  When you receive negative feedback, what skills do you use to process it and respond to it?  There is always a tendency to get defensive when the feedback is personal or when it addresses something that is important to us.  How you respond to negative feedback demonstrates to others much about who you are as a leader.  Do you come across as defensive and protective?  Do you accept negative feedback passively and appear to 'give in' easily?  Or do you accept it and process it in a way that demonstrates you have the skills to receive it? 

What are these skills?  Here is the start of a list that might be helpful....

  • listen carefully to what is being said to you
  • relax - as best you can - and breathe regularly
  • seek to truly understand what is being said to you
  • paraphrase concisely what you've heard
    • paraphrase the content of the messages
    • paraphrase the emotion in the messages
  • try to get to the heart of the matter - what is the essential issue?  - what are the peripheral issues?
  • agree or concur with whatever points you can
  • if you have specific information (e.g. a letter, an email, an announcement) that could shed light on the issue in question, bring it forward. 
  • When you bring forward information that supports your position, do it as helpful information, not as a way of providing 'proof' that you are right
  • clarify the points where there is disagreement or a gap in information
  • plan - with the person providing the feedback - a plan to resolve the issue
  • ensure that your plan has at least one opportunity to revisit the issue with the person
  • reflect - Think about how you worked through the process of receiving feedback.  Did you do it with the intent to 'win' or did you do it with the intent to use the information for growth?  Think about this carefully and use your new thinking to inform the next time you need to receive such feedback.
Receiving negative feedback can be very difficult.   None of us likes it but we can benefit from it and grow from it.  It depends on how we receive it and process it.  The skills mentioned above are simply suggestions about how to receive and respond to feedback.  You will likely need to practise.  You could ask trusted colleagues to help you build these skills.  Most probably, they'll be happy to help and you'll be demonstrating that you're preparing yourself to engage with others in positive ways to work though issues.


  1. Richard, thank you for addressing this 'sensitive topic' as I was reading and before I finished the post, I was reminded again about the importance of Emotional Intelligence in our work as leaders..... Self-regulation, self-awareness and recognizing that when criticism/negative feedback comes it must be 'managed, properly processed and addressed'.

  2. This posting reminded me about some negative feedbacks received when i started teaching. I believe the same principle applies here. Teacher is leader of the classroom, in order to receive negative feedbacks, one needs to have good EQ.

    It is very natural being defensive or protective once negative feedbacks come to our attention, especially indirectly. I believe leaders need to deal with negative feedbacks directly, this can make sure nothing is lost in the line of communication.

  3. Couldn't agree more! EI is a big piece - both on the receiving end - and the giving end. Case in point - most of us have someone in our lives that, if they let us know when we're headed in the wrong direction, we are appreciative. I suspect that much of the defensiveness that people feel with negative feedback is when it has been delivered in a way that is not emotionally intelligent. Ideally, the conclusion that something needs to change is a dialogue, not something we just 'receive'. Still, reality being what it is, the steps in the blog are very helpful!