The Role of Understanding and Accepting Feedback as a Leader (2023)

The Role of Understanding and Accepting Feedback as a Leader (1)

It can be lonely at the top. The buck stops with you, and it’s your job to create and implement the vision for your team, department, or organization, which means communicating the vision and gathering and incorporating your team’s feedback. However, not all feedback is constructive. It can be tricky for emerging leaders to evaluate which feedback to include and which to set aside while making all stakeholders feel heard.

When leaders have few, if any, peers to compare notes with, it’s common to have low confidence or be crippled by indecision about how to best move forward. When feedback ranges from highly positive (Go, team go!) to entirely negative (Terrible idea, 0/5 don’t recommend), it’s hard to know what feedback to accept.

Two extremes reflect the spectrum of reactions. The first represents ignoring most or all negative feedback in favor of the positive feedback that feeds the ego and pushing forward full speed ahead. Alternatively, people might listen to every piece of commentary and attempt to please everyone, which can water down the impact of your vision and slow progress to a crawl.

These two options represent equally harmful extremes. Ignoring all critics and trusting all fans is just as problematic as the reverse. So, knowing that not all positive feedback is good and not all negative feedback is bad, how can you decide who to listen to or how to move forward?

Let’s dive into how to overcome a lack of confidence in leadership by examining the different sources of feedback, whether or not feedback is constructive, and how to identify which types of feedback represent the middle ground of constructive criticism.

Constructive criticism is feedback that helps you improve your approach. It frequently manifests itself as a series of posed scenarios or questions, like:

  • “This is a strong idea, but what if….?”
  • “Have you considered incorporating…?”
  • “I like what you’ve done here and think _____ would make it better.”
  • “I’m not sure this is what I’d do. Would you be willing to consider…?”

On the other hand, you may also get non-constructive feedback, which frequently takes the form of complete acceptance or complete dismissal:

  • “What a great idea! Let’s do this!”
  • “You’re so smart. You always have the best ideas.”
  • “Ugh. this is terrible. Why would you take this on?”
  • “I’ll do it if I must, but I’m not happy about this.”
  • “Why? I’m so tired of all the changes.”

While taking the ego pump the gung-ho positive feedback brings can be tempting, you also have to look at who is providing it and why. The same is true of the super negative feedback. You must look at who shares each idea and why they feel that way. We’ll dive deeper into feedback sources and motivations below. For now, it’s enough to know that it’s not always cut and dry.

We alluded to this above, but it’s important to reiterate that not all good feedback is constructive. By that same token, negative feedback can be constructive as well. To understand constructive support, you need to understand the different sources of feedback.

Feedback from fans and superfans is usually positive because they buy into almost everything you do. Because fans and super fans want to see you succeed, they may greenlight everything. They may also tell you how to make it as strong as possible because they want to love it no matter what. Some examples of fans and super fans might be:

  • Your mom or dad
  • Your best friend
  • Your direct reports

Constructive criticism generally comes from people interested in helping you achieve a positive outcome and takes the form of new ideas to improve your approach. Whether they’ve bought into the idea or not, they generally have a positive outlook for the future and frequently want to put their stamp on it or see the idea succeed. They may or may not be your biggest fan, but they typically want to see the company perform well and are willing to consider multiple angles.

On the other side of the equation are the super negative reviews that aren’t at all constructive. While less-than-glowing feedback can be incredibly constructive and help you grow and improve, some people won’t be happy no matter what. Remember, outside of personal feuds abject negativity typically has very little–if anything–to do with you. Instead, it’s often all about their fears, concerns, and resistance to change and has nothing to do with your vision.

The big takeaway here is that people give feedback based on a massive range of motivations, and it’s essential to understand where people are coming from before deciding whether or not their feedback is constructive.

At this point, we’ve covered the different types of feedback, where it comes from, and how it might manifest. Now let’s dive into the motivations that contribute to how people engage with your vision and ideas.

Your superfans want to see you succeed, so they tend to cheer you on.

When it comes to the people closest to you, including your loved ones, they’re proud of you no matter what and often think your ideas are brilliant. By that same token, if there’s any risk, they may try to protect you and urge you to take the safest path. Any constructive feedback they provide is in the interest of helping you improve or grow.

When it comes to people at work, however, their motivations vary greatly.

Those who are subordinates or direct reports may wish to curry favor with you and greenlight your ideas without suggestions for improvement. Alternatively, they may fear opposing you, even if you have cultivated an environment based on transparency and trust.

This category of feedback can be tricky to navigate because it can come from a good place. After all, people may be critical of your ideas because they want to see the company succeed and question how this idea contributes to what they consider success.

Then again, they may be motivated out of jealousy of your success or even personal dislike that leads to them wanting you to fail. Alternatively, they may fear change, be worried that this change will make their roles redundant, or simply be uncomfortable with the new vision.

What these instances all have in common is that their criticism is rarely about you directly, and instead, they’re projecting their needs or feelings onto you.

In these cases, while considering their motivations and personal experience, it’s also wise to turn the mirror on yourself. Negative feedback may result from miscommunication or misunderstanding of the vision and possibly their role in bringing it to life. You can ask yourself questions to evaluate if this is the case:

  • How clearly did I communicate the vision?
  • What expectations do I have that I may have assumed or failed to communicate?
  • How well did I explain why I’m proposing the changes or vision?

Then again, as we mentioned above, some people may simply have sour grapes and may not be happy in any situation.

By evaluating each piece of negative feedback based on the source and their motivations, you can decide whether it’s something you want to consider.

The Role of Understanding and Accepting Feedback as a Leader (3)

It’s one thing to understand best practices for accepting or weathering criticism in theory and another to do it in real life. After all, when you’re in the midst of the decision and have multiple stakeholders with conflicting opinions, it can be hard to move forward confident that you’ve made the best decision.

And because, as a leader, it’s unlikely that you have a group of peers in your day-to-day life, it’s critical to learn how to confidently weigh feedback as you may not have a sounding board. What’s more, even if you do have a sounding board, it’s neither realistic nor productive to run every conversation or decision past them.

So how can you gain confidence in determining which feedback to incorporate and make confident decisions?

At altMBA, we’ve found that the best way to increase confidence in yourself as a leader is to learn the theory behind weighing options and making choices and then get hands-on experience in a safe setting. One of the biggest strengths of the altMBA program is that you’ll get the opportunity to explore practical applications of the strategies you learn.

After all, knowing how to respond to feedback is critical for success as a leader. When you can show up to confidently–and decisively–evaluate feedback based on source, motivation, and content, you’ll be better able to set the vision for your company and make strides toward achieving it.

If you’ve been considering a leadership program to build your confidence and skills, altMBA presents you with the opportunity to do both in an intensive cohort-driven format. We’d love to have you join us.

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Author: Reed Wilderman

Last Updated: 02/16/2023

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