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5 June 2024

How do you manage feedback as a leader?

Written by
Bill Pullen

Unlocking growth through embracing feedback

How do you take feedback? I aspire to be a leader – and human being – that welcomes feedback as an opportunity to learn, grow, and get better. Most of the time, I feel this is who I am. But when it comes down to it, I often find that feedback stings. I find myself cycling between blaming myself for the action that led to the feedback or blaming the other person for being too critical. In either case, when that happens, I recognize that I’ve fallen into a trap where learning and growth feel out of reach.

The emotional impact of feedback

I recently received feedback that hit hard. I felt both angry and embarrassed and found myself wanting to discount what the person said or even disengage from her completely. It took time and a lot of conversation with trusted colleagues and my own coach (yes, those of us who are coaches have coaches too!) to reach the point where I could step back and understand why the feedback she had provided hit so hard: it was out of step with how I saw myself. It hit right to the core of an area I’ve worked very hard at developing and generally consider myself quite good at. When I received the feedback, my ego was bruised, calling into question whether my assumptions about myself were accurate.

With some time to reflect and the help of others, I was able to see that her feedback contained helpful information for me and ways that I could continue to grow. 

I see this pattern in many of the leaders I work with. Alexander [name changed] is a very prominent figure in his field, leading important work that touches the lives of many people. He is often celebrated publicly for his impact and receives accolades for being a brilliant researcher and genuine, charming leader. But Alexander has a problem: his team and immediate colleagues no longer want to work with him. They experience him as demeaning and arrogant. 

This feedback flies in the face of both how he sees himself and the feedback he receives publicly. He shows up to our coaching sessions with alternating emotions of hurt, embarrassment, and anger. In one moment, he turns on himself; the next, he turns on the people closest to him who are providing the feedback. 

Noticing and confronting our emotions

The challenge lies in navigating the complex emotional landscape that feedback can evoke. It’s a natural human tendency to feel defensive or threatened when our self-perception is challenged. At a very core level, our nervous system interprets threats to our identity the same way it considers other threats. Our survival brain takes over, and we go into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn and disconnect from our thinking brain, which is the seat of curiosity. We may resort to self-blame, questioning our competence and worth, or projecting our discomfort onto the feedback giver, dismissing their perspective as flawed or ill-intentioned.

However, as I’ve mentioned previously, leadership development is fundamentally about human development. The journey of growth necessitates embracing our strengths while also confronting our inevitable shortcomings, blind spots, and areas for improvement. Feedback, when given constructively and received with an open mind, can serve as a powerful catalyst for this growth.

Cultivating a new relationship with feedback

So, how can we, as leaders, cultivate a more productive relationship with feedback? It starts with noticing. Notice our initial response and recognize that it, while valid, does not have to dictate our actions. We can acknowledge criticism’s sting while approaching it with curiosity and a growth mindset.

To do so requires presence, self-awareness, and emotional self-regulation. When we find ourselves getting defensive or shutting down, we can pause, take a deep breath, and ask ourselves: 

What is the hardest part about the feedback?

What can I learn from this?

How might this feedback, even if delivered imperfectly, help me become a better leader and person? 

Consider reframing feedback as an opportunity to see ourselves through another’s eyes and expand our self-understanding.

As Alexander and I spent time together, he learned to notice what he was feeling when someone offered him feedback. Rather than reacting harshly towards himself and others, he learned to acknowledge what emotions were coming up and sit with the feelings long enough for the initial sting to pass. Giving himself this moment to pause allowed him to tap into curiosity – both about his own reaction and the other person’s experience. This enabled him to make sense of the feedback in a meaningful way, allowing him to actually build relationships with people rather than pushing them away. 

In my own case, I took the nugget of gold from the feedback I received and began experimenting with a couple of new behaviors related to the feedback the person offered. As I did so, I was able to shift from an angry and defensive posture toward her to one of curiosity, compassion, and appreciation.

Of course, not all feedback is created equal. Some may be misguided or stem from ulterior motives. As leaders, we also need to be discerning about feedback, considering its source, context, and alignment with our values and goals. But even in cases of misdirected feedback, there is an opportunity to practice empathy, assertiveness, and clear communication.

Embracing feedback on our journey into growth

Ultimately, our ability to receive feedback gracefully is a muscle that requires consistent exercise. It requires vulnerability, humility, and a commitment to lifelong learning. As we strengthen this muscle, we not only enhance our own leadership capacity—we also model for others a healthy approach to growth and development.

This journey of learning to accept and grow from feedback is not linear. As much as I’ve worked on receiving feedback gracefully, I still see myself falling into old traps. There will be times when I revert to old patterns of defensiveness or self-doubt. In these moments, self-compassion is key. 

We must remember that we are human and that growth is a process, not a destination. Establishing a personal “feedback ritual,” such as setting aside dedicated time for reflection and actively seeking out feedback, can help build resilience and normalize the experience.

Fundamentally, learning to accept and grow from feedback is about developing a more robust and flexible sense of self. It’s about recognizing that our worth as individuals and leaders is not contingent on being perfect but rather on our willingness to show up, be seen, and continually evolve.

As leaders, when we model a healthy response to feedback, we create a culture where others feel safe to do the same. We foster an environment where learning and development are prioritized, and people feel valued for their willingness to stretch and improve.

By embracing feedback as a catalyst for our evolution, we open ourselves up to new possibilities—for our organizations, our relationships, and ourselves. As leaders and lifelong learners, let’s commit to welcoming feedback with open minds and hearts, knowing that within every piece of input lies an invitation to become a better version of ourselves.

One thought on “How do you manage feedback as a leader?”

  1. KAREN BRONSON says:

    Trachers really need this message as much if not moreso than leaders. Many leaders avoid giving honest feedback to teachers to avoid the pushback.

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