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Henley Leadership Group Blog

Good Leaders Can Take Hard Feedback—Great Leaders Learn From It

Negative Feedback - 600 x 300

Many people shy away from leadership because they don’t want (or can’t be with) feedback — and leaders get a LOT of feedback. That doesn’t need to be a reason to avoid being a leader, though. The key to feedback is what you do with it.And that starts with understanding how to receive critical or difficult feedback without letting it fester or take you out of your power. 

The Natural Reaction to Negative Feedback

Often when someone criticizes you it's easy to become defensive. You may even cross your arms and close your mind.

In David Rock's book Your Brain at Work, he writes about how receiving feedback creates an intense threat response in the brain. When the limbic system is overly aroused, it impairs brain functioning. You tend to revert to your primal or reptilian brain to fight off the threat. 

But if you could understand what criticism is really about, you might find that it is one of the most powerful tools for self-realization and growth — if, that is, you really want to know the truth. 

The muscle to build is to stay in the neocortex, which is the conscious thinking brain. If you can't bring your focus out of the reptilian brain up into this thinking part of the brain, you’re bound to respond in a primal way. Your choices will be fight, flight or freeze. None of those are great leadership responses! 

Here’s an example from my own experience. After giving a presentation several years back, I got some hurtful feedback that I was “a plastic Barbie.” I've been given feedback before that I look like Barbie, maybe because of the color of my hair or my height or build. It seems to have something to do with the way I look. Somehow though, this time, the plastic Barbie feedback felt “ouchy” to me. 

My instinct was to take the “flight” choice. I decided I was never going to do another speaking engagement. That was going to be how I stopped hurtful feedback from ever coming my way again. I would remove myself from the source of future pain. 

And that's certainly OK if that's how you choose to do it. There are lots of people in the world who make choices like that. One of my favorite singers, Carly Simon, had such terrible stage fright that she just decided she would never ever walk onto a stage again. 

But what if I could take the feedback in and let it inform me? Engage with it and become better? I realized I had been “off” that day I gave the speech. I wasn’t connected to the audience. I was protecting myself. And someone in the audience felt that distance.  It made sense to me. I could work on being more connected, more authentic, sharing and showing more of my real self. 

Sometimes people use loaded words in feedback that trigger old hurts. Memories of the past can show up in a way that adds weight and velocity. But ultimately, it can prevent you from dealing with it in a way that's productive and helpful. 

The trick is to find a way to receive feedback that will allow you to keep expanding and accessing your voice, freedom, and power without defaulting to stress-based reactions like fighting, fleeing, or freezing. It’s even possible to find a way to be more playful with feedback and unjam yourself from it. 

How to Be More Open to Feedback

Try this. When someone says you are wrong, unkind, confused, uncaring, etc., feel it. Settle into it before you strike out, experience it and maybe even invite it. Ask yourself: "Is it true? Could they be right?" Wait for the answer.

You can also practice this. Consider the worst thing a person might say about you and your leadership — you are a micro-manager, scattered, wrong, opinionated, stubborn, uncompassionate, boring, a bad leader, etc. 

Then, find three genuine ways it could be true. Really look and see. Next, flip it and list three genuine ways it’s NOT true. What you’re looking for is balance. 

Here’s the big takeaway. Everything another person could say about you could be true. Knowing this should reduce your defensiveness! 

If you can remain open, you can receive difficult feedback in a way that allows you to expand. If you’re willing to take in feedback offered by others, it can significantly improve your leadership.

Previously published on Forbes