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Why Executives Must Remain Humble in the Face of Critical Feedback

Accepting critical feedback is essential to growth, as long as you're willing to learn from your mistakes.

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Feedback is the fuel that powers growth and transformation, and it’s vital to any company’s ongoing success. As the public continues to demand more social responsibility from companies, the value of receiving critical feedback before implementing new policies or releasing a potentially offensive statement has never been higher. Not taking a stand on a divisive issue or inadvertently taking the wrong stand — despite the best of intentions — can lead to costly blunders that result in damage to your company and your reputation.

As a leader, it is on us to create a safe environment where feedback is encouraged — to create a company culture where leaders and employees alike know how to accept criticism, take accountability for our mistakes, and learn from them to move forward.

Why critical feedback is important

Avoiding critical feedback is like avoiding the dentist because you forgot to floss: It only makes your teeth worse, leaving you with a mouthful of cavities and a hefty bill.

As the CEO of a fast-paced small business, I believe it’s critical to get feedback about what we do well, what we need to improve upon and what services we should add to better serve our employees, clients and vendors. Perhaps most importantly, feedback alerts us to what we’re not doing that could make an impact, and why we need to course-correct.

Furthermore, mistakes are inevitable in leadership, and sometimes we aren’t aware of our mistakes until someone else points them out. By empowering our employees to provide honest feedback, positive or negative, we gain visibility into areas we may be ignorant of or aren’t communicating well.

While I don’t apply every piece of feedback I receive, I take what I hear to heart and explore alternative approaches to areas of concern that have significance or urgency. Hearing critical feedback without debating or dismissing it can often be challenging, but if we stay open, we can see that hearing someone else’s perspective is simply an opportunity to learn and grow as a person, leader and business.

Related: 6 Tips for Hearing Tough Feedback

How to respond with humility

Though it may be uncomfortable at times to sit with critical feedback, there is a way to go about the process to ensure that every party involved feels safe, heard and supported.

  • Prioritize safety. The person providing feedback will not be able to do so if they do not feel safe. Without an agenda, ask the person to agree to a safe environment and assure them you will listen with an open mind. Communicate that you may ask questions in the process, not as a means to dispute their perspective but to better understand what they have to say.
  • Listen carefully. Avoid arguing, denying, or explaining yourself during the feedback session. Instead, try to listen and work to accurately understand the other party. Your rebuttal can (and should) wait: ask clarifying questions to aid your understanding, not to debate.
  • Ponder and reflect. Depending upon the magnitude of the complaints, take the appropriate time to see things from the other person’s perspective and understand what they’re saying objectively.
  • Plan improvements. After reflecting, determine what you will do as a result and communicate your thoughts to the reviewer. Thank them for their candor and invite them to suggest any additional ideas they have to make this an actionable learning experience for you. For those emotionally ready to hear it, be clear about why you invited feedback in the first place and let them know how you will apply it going forward.
  • Follow through with tangible action. Honor your word and genuinely commit to the action you promised to take. If you retaliate or do not follow through, you will undermine the process and dissuade employees from approaching you in the future. Focus on what you learned and move forward without spiraling into personal conflict or apathy.

Related: How To Receive Constructive Feedback Effectively

Commit to lifelong learning

We’re all fallible. We’ve all made mistakes in the past, and we will make mistakes in the future — but what matters is our commitment to learning and growing from them.

I made a grave mistake two years ago, of which I remain regretful even now. We were one month into pandemic lockdown, and I became myopically focused on my family and business. As a coping mechanism, I disengaged from the news due to the stress it induced and chose to focus on tangible actions I could take in my own life and business instead.

Unfortunately, this blind spot to current events caused me to make an accidental mistake and misuse terminology as a result. Since I’d been actively avoiding the news, I missed the true meaning of an emerging social movement when I announced our newly formed diversity council with an All Lives Matter logo, without knowing it was countering the much-needed Black Lives Matter movement that I full-heartedly support.

Within five minutes of the presentation, my mistake was brought to my attention. I immediately apologized to everyone, explaining that I had been unaware of the context and did not support All Lives Matter. I then took active steps to restore trust with my team through reading and enrolling in courses to ensure my ignorance and privilege don’t lead me to do things that have unintended meanings in the future.

Things resumed, and my team forgave my blunder. I know they won’t forget, but I am grateful they know me well enough to know that I never intend to offend anyone, especially those who need our support.

I appreciate those who recognize that leaders are human and make mistakes. At the same time, I know that good leadership requires us to hold ourselves accountable and learn from our mistakes without attempting to skirt blame or gaslight those who point them out. I still feel awful about my messaging blunder, but in speaking openly about it, I hope to give others the courage to own their mistakes, accept critical feedback without excuses and create a plan to apply what those mistakes reveal to them about their shortcomings.

Related: How to Create a Culture of Feedback

Be proactive

No one makes decisions in a vacuum. Feedback is vital to the success of any company, not only in terms of product development, business transactions, and customer satisfaction but also in other, less obvious areas that are becoming increasingly important to get right the first time. Good leaders own their mistakes, take responsibility for them and ensure they aren’t repeated.

Don’t wait until the toothache is so bad that you can no longer ignore it. Take proactive steps to locate your blind spots by regularly encouraging feedback and listening to it with humility. By cultivating a culture where learning is encouraged, you empower employees to speak up when you make a mistake and to own and grow from the mistakes they make themselves. And when each individual grows, the business does, too.

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