Embrace Feedback to Transform Your Leadership


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You might think you’re open to constructive criticism of your leadership. But as IESE’s Fast Forward program keynote speaker Sheila Heen points out: For all that we want to grow and improve, we also want to be accepted, respected and loved just the way we are.

In her IESE Insight article Feedback Tips for Less Grumbling, More Growth,” Heen says that it’s this essential contradiction – the urge to improve versus the need for approbation – that makes it challenging to receive feedback without getting defensive or losing motivation.

For senior executives, the challenge is even greater. Often as not, more junior employees will resist criticism of the boss for fear of negative payback.

Senior managers often exist in a bubble, insulated from feedback – positive or “constructive.”

Giving feedback to employees can also be challenging, with the risk of derailing someone’s progress or denting confidence in the attempt to correct behaviors.

However, failing to give and receive honest feedback could seriously hurt your business. It can lead to unchecked inefficiencies and practices, and hamper growth.

Changing Feedback Culture

According to two global surveys, more than half of employees feel their performance reviews were inaccurate or unfair. Moreover, most HR professionals and managers around the world don’t think current review processes are effective.

Managers say that employees become defensive, argue, or disengage when they receive negative feedback. Those on the receiving end say the feedback doesn’t appreciate the constraints they are under, or isn’t helpful.

Heen concludes that improving our feedback culture is something that needs to start with senior executives.

Leaders must themselves learn to solicit and accept negative feedback, in order to set a tone and example for other employees to do the same.

Learning How to Take It

So how can you learn to receive criticism?

First, it’s key to understand what exactly people are saying to you.

Some questions you should ask yourself include: Where did the feedback come from and what is its purpose? What, specifically, do colleagues or employees want you to do differently in the future?

Next, separate the message from the messenger.

Though you don’t have to accept every criticism, ask yourself if anything the person is saying could be valuable. Your self-perception might not match how others see you, and people you don’t get along with are actually the best sources for revealing any discrepancies.

Learn the triggers that will make you more or less receptive to the advice being given (whether someone is criticizing your “pet project,” say, or confirming your own suspicions of your weak areas).

Finally, consider your sensitivity level. Are you someone who has responded strongly to criticism in the past, at the office or in your personal life? Or, on the other end of the spectrum, have you been accused of not reacting to negative feedback at all?

Determine where you are on this sensitivity spectrum, and try to move to a middle point where you learn from feedback without letting it puncture your self-confidence.

When you’re soliciting feedback, let employees know you want their honest opinions by asking: “What is one thing you see me doing, or failing to do, that is getting in my way?”

Round Robin: 360-Degree Feedback

One tool for companies seeking to give fairer and more helpful reviews to employees is 360-Degree Feedback. Under this system, employees get feedback from superiors, peers, and their reports via a standardized questionnaire.

The idea is to identify the “blind zones” and habits that need to be re-routed or developed.

However, anonymity is crucial in order to encourage the flow of honest information and prevent leaders in particular from staying within the “feedback bubble.”

In “360º Evaluation: More Than a Technique,” IESE Professor Guido Stein and his co-author Eduardo Rábago suggest using short questionnaires. Keep your form short and succinct, says Stein.

They also warn that evaluators can fall victim to bias.

The “mirror effect,” is the tendency to rate people similar to yourself more highly than others.

And there are other things to look out for too, say the authors.

The so-called “halo effect” occurs when one feature of an employee overshadows others; while the “inflation effect” sets in when employees know that their evaluations will affect someone’s salary or chances for promotion.

Coach and Be Coached

As you strive to give and get honest feedback, you might want to consider using an executive coach.

Having an effective coach can lead to self-awareness and changes in your behaviors to help you meet specific goals.

Founder of the Institute of Coaching, Carol Kauffman, says coaching has become “par for the course.”

“We’re in a new era where the model of leaders as superheroes is no longer relevant. Leaders also need support.”

Even if it’s a short-term arrangement, the competencies acquired though coaching could allow you to continue to develop within your organization and to learn to be a better informal “coach” to subordinates.

In this context, IESE’s broad and top-ranked portfolio of executive education programs, such as the Advanced Management Program (AMP) or the Program for Leadership Development (PLD), include coaching sessions and feedback tools for senior executives.

The school also offers more specific programs such as the focused programs “Developing Leadership Competencies,” and “Becoming a Positive Leader: Accelerating Individual and Organizational Change.”

Frameworking Feedback

Improving your own ability, as a leader, to solicit and utilize constructive criticism is the first step.

But people – and companies – need mechanisms in place in order to give and receive feedback. And a corporate culture that encourages it.

Even in this era, where coaching and “open-door policies” are increasingly the norm, employees are still reluctant to give their colleagues and bosses honest feedback, says IESE Professor Mireia Las Heras.

In her article “It’s Quiet, Too Quiet: The Danger of Silence at Work,” Las Heras points to attitudes and practices that foster this reluctance. These include thinking that employees are only motivated by personal interest; assuming that it is enough to talk to an employee’s direct supervisor; and taking a lack of complaints as a sign of unity among workers.

Where there is a general reluctance to criticize, says Las Heras, you’ll see creativity and innovation suffers.

Once an appraisal system is formalized within a firm, says Las Heras, it helps if there is diversity and approachability among senior managers. And if those responsible for achieving objectives are recognized and rewarded.

Send the message that you, as a leader, are there to help employees and to listen to them, says Las Heras. Even if what they have to say about you is not so easy to hear.


Heen, S.Feedback Tips for Less Grumbling, More Growth.” IESE Insight Review Issue 21, Second Quarter 2014.

IESE Business School. “Transforming Leadership Through Coaching.” YouTube. Posted on November 11, 2015.

IESE Business School News. “Focus on What Went Well and Keep Doing That.” Posted on October 16, 2015.

Las Heras, M.It’s Quiet, Too Quiet: The Danger of Silence at Work.” IESE Insight Business Knowledge Portal, 2013.

Ortiz, E.; Ribera, A.Executive Coaching.” IESE, DPON-124-E, 07/2015.

Rábago, E.; Stein, G.360º Evaluation: More Than a Technique.” IESE, DPON-112-E, 02/2014.

Rábago, E.; Stein, G. Avoid Common Mistakes in Managing People.” IESE Insight Business Knowledge Portal, 2013.


Leadership and General Management Programs

Advanced Management Program (AMP)

Program for Leadership Development (PLD)

Focused Programs

Developing Leadership Competencies

Becoming a Positive Leader: Accelerating Individual and Organizational Change

This post is also available in: Spanish

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