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How Leaders Can Handle (and Respond) to Negative Feedback - HRDQ

How Leaders Can Handle (and Respond) to Negative Feedback

There's a good chance that your organization performs employee reviews on an annual or biannual basis. During these meetings, a manager and an employee discuss the worker's performance within a certain period.

However, employees aren't the only ones that can receive criticism (or praise) about their work performance. When you're a leader, you must be open to hearing feedback from your employees, whether positive or negative.

It's natural to hope that everyone is pleased with your leadership and management. However, if there are issues that need to be dealt with, it's crucial that your employees feel comfortable speaking up to address those issues.

So how can you handle and respond to negative feedback as a leader?

How to Handle Negative Feedback as a Leader

Few people enjoy receiving negative feedback. Regardless of how long you've been in a leadership role, it's important to remember that we're all human, and some of us struggle with criticism more than others.

Handling Negative Feedback

Let's take a look at how to handle negative feedback as a leader to ensure that both you and your employees benefit from the experience.

Improve your supervisory skills: Supervisory Skills Questionnaire

1. See All Feedback as a Gift

It's easy to recoil at the thought of negative feedback, but there is gold hidden inside all feedback you receive, whether it's good or bad.

First, when your employees give you negative feedback, it means that they feel safe and comfortable enough to do so.

It's essential that your workers know they can speak up when they see a problem or something that isn't working in the organization. This can help boost employee morale and engagement while realistically benefitting the organization as a whole.

Leader Receiving Feedback

Secondly, feedback can help you continue to work toward being the best leader you can be. After all, if people don't tell you how they feel, how can you know what's working and what isn't?

2. Try to Isolate the Core Issue

Sometimes, employee feedback can be wrapped in dozens of layers of "other stuff."

Before you start attempting to solve the problem, work to try and understand what is driving their concerns.

There is usually a core issue somewhere inside the proposed problem.

Isolating the Core Issue

It's possible that the issue has to do with communication, personnel, process, or something else entirely.

When you have identified the core issue at the center of the feedback, you can work to reframe the feedback based on that primary concern. Understanding the core problem is essential to effectively solve the issue at hand.

3. Listen Carefully

It's not uncommon to shut down when people are critical of you or your department, but it's crucial to be more engaged now than ever.

When you're receiving negative feedback, listen intently and work to understand what is being said. 

Doing so is essential because it's important that your employees feel heard, and will help ensure that you grasp the main issues they raise.

Listening Carefully to Feedback

It can feel tempting to respond immediately when there is a complaint among your employees. While it's important to say something, you don't have to have an answer right away. Instead, you can say something along the lines of "thank you for giving me this feedback. I'll get back to you in a day or two after thinking about it a bit more."

Helpful tips to improve listening skills: Learning to Listen

4. Take a Step Back

If you have difficulty dealing with criticism, it's important to remember to step back and take a deep breath.

Taking a Step Back

No one likes dealing with unpleasant, tense issues, and letting our emotions take over is easy.

There is no rush in reacting. Before you do, take a breath and step back.

During this time, take a moment to ask yourself if there is some truth in the feedback and consider how you can meet the person where they are.

5. Talk With an Impartial Third Party

It can be challenging to gain space from negative feedback, particularly when it feels personal.

This is the ideal opportunity to go to an impartial third party to discuss what was said.

If you go this route, you can potentially gain some truly valuable insight.

Talking With a Third Party

People who aren't involved or invested in the situation can often see what's happening from a different angle. This perspective can give you valuable things to consider and incorporate into your response.

6. Apply a Growth Mindset

Having a growth mindset means that you see challenges as an opportunity to develop your abilities and grow.

When you apply a growth mindset to negative feedback, you can start to see the feedback as constructive criticism rather than a slight to you or your organization.

Applying a Growth Mindset

A growth mindset is essential for the ability to view feedback as a gift. It allows you to jump at the opportunity to receive feedback, regardless of how negative, because you know it presents a chance to gain new skills and improve as a leader and a person.

How to Respond to Negative Feedback as a Leader

Responding to Negative Feedback

Now that we've looked at some tips for handling negative feedback, let's consider how best to respond when you receive criticism as a leader.

1. Show Appreciation

It's essential to show the person giving feedback that you genuinely appreciate hearing their opinion. Though no one wants to work in an office where team members are constantly complaining, you want to know that your employees feel comfortable speaking up if issues need to be addressed.

You're providing positive reinforcement for your employees by showing appreciation for the feedback you receive. It's also an opportunity for you to show the strength of your leadership– your sense of control in the office isn't threatened by someone having a complaint or concern.

Showing Appreciation to Employee

Regardless of whether you feel like the feedback is constructive or related to something that should be addressed, it's important for your employees to feel heard and feel comfortable speaking up when they have something they need to say.

2. Be Empathetic

It can be difficult for employees to give feedback, and it can be challenging for a leader to know how to respond. That is particularly true if you see the feedback as criticism instead of a growth opportunity or take it personally.

Being Empathetic With Employee

It's important to understand that the person providing negative feedback is potentially just as uncomfortable or perhaps more uncomfortable than you feel in receiving it. So rather than assuming that the person is finding enjoyment in saying something difficult, try to recognize that they are also outside their comfort zone by taking the chance to provide criticism they view as necessary.

3. Gather More Information Before Responding

It can be shocking and disorienting when you receive feedback you weren't expecting. You might realize that your employees don't see you the way you see yourself, which can be hard to swallow.

For this reason, gathering more information surrounding the situation is a good idea. If the feedback is specific to your leadership style, maybe it's time for you to step back and analyze what your leadership style is.

Gathering Additional Information

You can also ask others you trust for feedback about your strengths and weaknesses. If you are willing not to feel offended by what you hear, this can be a tremendous opportunity to grow.

It's also entirely possible that the feedback you have received wasn't standing on much of a foundation. By looking both inward and outward, you can realize this and be better prepared for the next time you receive negative criticism.

4. Don't Let Your Emotions Take Over

No matter how level-headed you are most of the time, it's easy for our emotions to take over and control our actions when someone gives us negative feedback. Whether hearing this criticism makes you feel like crying, shouting, or punching a wall, there is something very natural about reacting emotionally to the news you don't want to hear.

That being said, these types of reactions are likely not ideal in the workplace. Sometimes, leaders will suppress these stronger emotions in favor of tactics like sarcasm or passive aggression. Unfortunately, these are also not the best way to continue providing leadership for your team in the face of criticism.

Letting Emotions Take Over

One way to overcome this type of issue is to use cognitive reappraisal. You might choose to try something called affect labeling, which means that we try to translate our feelings into words.

For example, if an employee tells you that you never give positive feedback, you might step back and acknowledge that you feel blindsided, surprised, and hurt.

You can also apply self-affirmation to these situations. If your emotions are running high after negative feedback, step back and take a couple of minutes to remember essential aspects of your identity that are separate from those in question.

Let's say that an employee criticizes you for being disorganized. You can step back and remember that you are a loving parent, a supportive friend, and a good spouse. Doing so can help you stay in touch with the bigger picture, so you can keep the criticism you received in its proper perspective.

5. Lead By Example

Leading by Example

As a leader in your workplace, you mustn't have a "do as I say, not as I do" attitude. Instead, you'll want to work toward leading by example. In this instance, perhaps you want your team to be open to criticism and to use feedback as a potential path to growth. If this is the case, then it's vital that you don't get defensive when you are at the receiving end of feedback.

6. Summarize the Feedback

One essential tool you can use to ensure that your employees feel heard is summarizing their feedback. This is a necessary skill if you want to be an effective communicator as a leader.

When you outline the basic points of criticism being brought to your attention, it helps ensure everyone is on the same page. It also helps improve communication efficiency and allows you to pinpoint action items that can be put into motion when appropriate.

Team on the Same Page

It's easy for things to get lost in translation when someone is giving negative feedback, especially if either party (or both) are upset. When you summarize the feedback given to you, you're both showing the person that you're listening to them and trying to understand.

7. Be Genuine

People seem to have a sixth sense when it comes to authenticity. You must respond genuinely if someone has summoned the energy and drive to bring feedback to your attention.

Leader Being Genuine

If you feel that you're at fault for the problem at hand, a sincere apology is best rather than trying to deflect and save face. When you genuinely believe that the criticism is unfounded, try to find a way to discuss your point of view without delving into communication styles that are sarcastic, passive-aggressive, or condescending.

How to respond in different situations and improve interpersonal influence: Interpersonal Influence Inventory

8. Seek Additional Feedback

If an employee has brought something to your attention that you had no idea was an issue, you might see this as an opportunity to seek additional feedback.

Seeking Additional Feedback

By welcoming feedback rather than discouraging it, you can help boost employee morale and engagement while gaining valuable insight into your organization and your role as a leader.

9. Take Steps to Show You're Serious About Change

If the criticism that has been brought to you identifies something that needs to change, it's essential to take steps to show that you're serious about making that change. Then, once you've done so, follow up with the employee who made the criticism or the entire team if it seems appropriate to do so.

Taking Steps Towards Change

This way, your team doesn't feel like their feedback fell on deaf ears. Be present, empathetic, and genuine in receiving feedback. Still, it's all the more essential to illustrate that you are ready and willing to make the changes that are necessary to solve the problem.

What Type of Leader Are You?

Becoming more self-aware is one of the best things we can do as leaders for ourselves, our employees, and our organizations. If you've received negative feedback about your leadership style, it's natural for that to sting. However, if you can step back and look at the situation from a different perspective, it's an excellent opportunity for you to grow, learn, and improve as a leader.

Strong Team Leader

At HRDQ, we understand how important it is to assess your leadership style to determine your strengths and weaknesses. That's why we've created What's My Leadership Style, which can help you continue to become the best leader you can be.

Do you have any questions about how you, as a leader, can handle and respond to negative feedback? Was there anything mentioned in today's article that you'd like additional clarification on? If so, please be sure to leave a comment down below, and we'll get back to you within a day or two! We make it a point to reply to every comment and question we receive, and we'd be more than happy to assist you however we possibly can!

Related Products

Supervisory Skills Questionnaire

Learning to Listen

Interpersonal Influence Inventory

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About our author

Bradford R. Glaser

Brad is President and CEO of HRDQ, a publisher of soft-skills learning solutions, and HRDQ-U, an online community for learning professionals hosting webinars, workshops, and podcasts. His 35+ years of experience in adult learning and development have fostered his passion for improving the performance of organizations, teams, and individuals.