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8 ways leaders can get better at receiving feedback

  —  18/09/23

As a leader, receiving feedback can be challenging, even when it’s constructive. It’s natural to feel defensive or uncomfortable when faced with what you perceive to be criticism. But, as a leader, your ability to not only accept but truly welcome and learn from feedback is vital for your personal growth, team dynamics, and organizational success. 

Far too often, leaders expect their teams to embrace feedback, yet they struggle to receive it themselves. They don’t model the behavior they want to see in others. This reluctance can lead to missed opportunities to improve and hinder your effectiveness as a leader. You risk missing vital information that can inform your decision-making and help you better understand your team’s perspectives and emotions. Feedback is the gift of insight. To encourage an open feedback culture in your team, you must lead by example and be receptive to feedback.

Here are eight practical steps to help you become a better feedback receiver:

1. Get curious, not furious: Seek first to understand

When someone offers feedback, shift your focus from formulating your response to getting curious about what they are saying and genuinely trying to understand their perspective. This requires courage and vulnerability. Often, we only half-listen, while the rest of our brain focuses on crafting a comeback. To truly receive feedback, take a deep breath and prioritize listening to comprehend, not just to reply.

2. Drop the defence and assume positive intent

Most people give feedback with good intentions, so resist the urge to respond defensively. Reframe your perspective from viewing it as an attack to seeing it as information. Instead of assuming negative intent, which we’re prone to do thanks to our negative bias, assume that their reason for raising their concerns is positive and intended to help get a better outcome. This does not mean you have to agree with the feedback the other person gives you, but be open to receiving it.

3. Drill down to specifics

Encourage those giving feedback to be specific about their concerns rather than make vague statements like “the whole thing is rubbish”. Ask questions to delve deeper. If someone thinks you’re leading a change poorly, ask them why. You need more information. What is it about your behavior that made them come to that conclusion?

4. Seek examples

Just like it’s important to give specific examples when delivering difficult feedback, it’s also important to ask for them when you’re the one receiving feedback. This not only helps you understand the issue more clearly but also helps you determine if their feedback is grounded in fact and reality, or if they have made assumptions.

5. Clarify and confirm

Don’t assume you completely understand the other person’s perspective. Summarise what you’ve heard and ask for confirmation to ensure alignment. For instance, you might say, “What I’m hearing is… Have I got that right?”

6. Put a pause between your reaction and your response

When confronted with challenging feedback, emotions can run high. Instead of reacting immediately, request a break or more time for reflection before coming back to them for a discussion. This should not be used as an avoidance tactic but rather a regulation tool. If you say you’ll get back to them, make sure you do. This will allow you to respond calmly and thoughtfully, rather than impulsively in the heat of the moment.

If taking a physical break isn’t possible, take a drink of water, a deep breath, or say something like, “Let me think about that for a moment.” Even a few seconds to consider your response will help.

7. Look for the learnings

Even if the feedback is hard to hear, there are often valuable lessons to be found within it. What can you do differently based on the feedback? What gift has the insight given you? Look for opportunities to grow, improve, and refine your leadership based on this new information.

8. Be grateful

Even if you disagree with the feedback you’ve received, acknowledge and appreciate the courage of the person who shared it with you. No, you don’t have to be grateful for what they said, but rather the fact that they said it to your face rather than behind your back. Knowing how someone perceives you, your actions, or a decision you’ve made can be valuable information to have.

Remember, receiving feedback is a skill that improves with practice. By modeling effective feedback reception, you set a powerful example for your team and foster a culture of open communication and continuous improvement. Feedback should not be seen as a dirty word; it’s your path to personal and leadership growth.

Leah Mether is a communication and soft skills trainer obsessed with making the people part of leadership and work life easier.

With more than 15 years’ experience working with thousands of clients, and an acclaimed book to her name, Leah knows what it takes to communicate under pressure. Like you, she knows the challenge of conflict, personality clashes, and difficult conversations.

Leah is renowned for her practical, engaging, straight-shooting style. Utilising her Five Cs® model of communication, she helps leaders and teams shift from knowing to doing, and radically improve their effectiveness.

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