The Connected Leader, Part III: How to Accept Feedback Gracefully

As a Connected Leader, you’re usually open to hearing whatever your team members have to say. You know them well and you’re skillful about encouraging them to speak. The challenge is to be able to tolerate — nay, welcome — any ideas they have that are different from yours.

If you have any real authority at all, most people will agree with you publicly, because they assume that it’s not safe to share their disagreements with the leader. Instead, they’ll talk with their peers about their real opinions, including their dissatisfactions and dissensions, when you’re not around to hear it and can’t do anything about it.

So it’s crucial, particularly in the face of potential conflict, to ask explicitly for input and then show by your actions that you actually want your team’s feedback. Here are some useful techniques:

Give your team members coded language to use when they want you to hear them out, but are hesitant. Suggest that they say: “This is one of those times — I need you to listen without interrupting.” Or: “I know you’ll have lots of comments, but please let me finish my opening statement before you start making them.”

Remember to keep your agreement to listen carefully, rather than interrupting with questions and objections — even if they’re legitimate. In fact, the more you want to disagree, the more you need to consider your response carefully.

Paraphrase or reflect your team members’ words and views back to them. It’s legitimate to probe for more context and data, so long as you don’t edge into an interrogation. You’re the one who’s supposed to be in the hot seat! You could say, “I understand that you think I’ve been making snap decisions in this critical area. Can you give me a couple of examples, so I can review what’s been going on and why?”

Tell them what you’re going to do next, even if you only commit to reflecting on their input and discussing it again at your next appointment.

Thank them for their content and the effort it took to share it. Tell them how important their feedback was, and how it made you change your mind, modify your behavior, or choose a different course of action. If you give them no concrete evidence that their feedback actually changes anything, they’ll have a harder time believing that you actually want it.

Agree to Disagree

But what if, after listening carefully, you feel that your team is just dead wrong, or they’ve struck a nerve, and you feel defensive about your behavior or the way you’ve had to behave on management’s behalf?

Try lengthening your time horizon and lightening your sense of self. If you were to take action based on their recommendations, what could be different and better in a month, six months, or a year?

Acknowledge the merits of their view — whether or not you agree with it. Even if your team is telling you something you don’t want to hear about yourself or the organization, focus on the relationship, not yourself. That way they’ll be less likely to feel shut down or closed out, and more likely to continue engaging — not just with you, but also with their work.

Show them respect by describing the data or experience that’s the basis of your opinion, or explain what else they need to do to convince you. If you’re just feeling resistant to what they’re saying, or if you’re really not getting their point, ask them to tell you again, because you really want to understand. They have a perspective and access to information that you don’t have, just as the reverse is also true.

State your gratitude explicitly for their feedback, and ask them to keep it coming because it’s useful and helps you in your job. “Even though I don’t agree with your conclusion, I appreciate your concern and the way you approached the topic.”

Congratulate the team — and yourself — for being mature, upstanding adults who care enough about each other and the organization to put yourselves on the line and risk discomfort and stress to do things the right way and make them better.

In the long run, maintaining a candid, open, personal relationship with your team members will be beneficial for the organization, whatever your formal role or your place in the organizational hierarchy or structure.

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