We all like to think of ourselves as open to criticism, but how many of us actually are? Even when we recognize that negative feedback is meant to be constructive, it’s difficult to avoid giving in to the reflexive defense mechanisms that come so naturally – from fighting back to ignoring anything that makes us feel uncomfortable.
But it makes no sense to penalize or hide from negative feedback. Constructive feedback is one of the most important resources for personal growth and interpersonal development – especially for CEOs and managers. When a company’s leaders make it clear they aren’t to be criticized, the effects on their workplace culture are pernicious: open communication is cut off, accountability drops, and an atmosphere of tension and resentment take hold.
However, if leaders demonstrate that they welcome criticism and know how to put it to good use, employees won’t feel the need to censor themselves. This creates a healthier environment for everyone. Employees who are empowered to share their thoughts feel valued and engaged. Leaders willing to receive feedback put themselves in a growth mindset and develop a more accurate picture of things they’re doing well and what needs improvement.
Here are three ways leaders can turn negative feedback into positive outcomes for their companies.
Give employees permission to criticize
Employees are often intimidated by their managers, which makes them reluctant to voice their concerns – much less share any criticism. If you’re a CEO or are in a leadership position at your company, just put yourself in your employees’ position. Giving anyone negative feedback can be stressful, and this stress will only be compounded when talking to an authority figure.
In fact, providing negative feedback is often scary for managers too. According to a survey of more than 7,600 managers by Zenger Folkman, 44% described giving negative feedback as stressful or difficult. The researchers said the experience prompted comments like “I did not sleep the night before,” “I just wanted to get it over quickly,” and “my hands were sweating and I was nervous.” If this is the case for managers, just imagine how difficult it is for employees.
CEOs and leaders should constantly remind employees that negative feedback isn’t just acceptable – it’s encouraged. In as many settings as possible, leaders should explain that negative feedback makes the company stronger and facilitates norms of open communication. Instead of fishing for compliments, leaders should emphasize the need for honest appraisals of their performance, and express gratitude to employees willing to offer constructive criticism.
When employees feel they have permission to offer you honest feedback, you’ll learn more about how your company operates and you’ll forge healthier relationships across the company.
How to make use of negative feedback
If employees are willing to provide negative feedback, you should consider it a success. This shows they trust you enough to tell you what they really think. But creating an environment where employees feel free to be candid is only part of the process – you also need to be able to use negative feedback productively.
First, you have to set concrete goals and share them with your entire team. This will help your colleagues hold you accountable and provide objective metrics to do so. Second, it’s vital to take accountability seriously. If employees correctly point out that you aren’t meeting your goals or living up to your stated principles, don’t make excuses. Own your mistakes in a public way. This will encourage your managers and employees to do the same. Third, don’t be a punching bag. Criticism should flow in both directions, with thoughtful and respect.
Finally, you have to develop a strategy for effectively processing negative feedback and implementing changes. Don’t just change things to change things. To intentionally create lasting change, compare feedback from different sources, consider how new policies fit within your overall goals,define how success or failure will be tracked, and be sure to consult with a diverse group of managers and employees about proposed changes.
Always focus on employee engagement
Two-thirds of American workers say they aren’t engaged at work, and one of the main reasons is they don’t feel their voices are heard. According to Gallup, just 30 percent of employees “strongly agree that at work, their opinions seem to count.” When companies increase that proportion, Gallup reports they see significant reductions in turnover and safety incidents, along with increased productivity.
As the researchers put it: “Employees want to know their input is being considered and encouraged and that they can voice their opinion without fear of retaliation.”
This is why active listening is so important for CEOs and managers. Active listening is a strategy that can be used anywhere. The American Psychological Association explains it involves intentionally listening carefully, asking questions, and restating what the speaker has said to “fully understand the content of the message” and signal that you’re engaged. Employees shouldn’t just feel free to share their opinions – they should also feel their opinions actually matter.
When establishing a culture of honesty, develop mechanisms for putting employee feedback into action, and ensure that your employees’ voices are heard – especially when those voices are critical.
Cameron Yarbrough, Co-founder + CEO of Torch, a leadership development software platform that integrates premium 1:1 coaching with top-tier coaches, behavioral science, robust metrics, and agile feedback. Cameron is also a leadership coach and came up with the idea for Torch while coaching his clients, Silicon Valley leaders like Steve Huffman (Reddit Co-founder + CEO), Justin Kan (Founder of Twitch), and Garry Tan (Co-founder of Initialized Capital + former Partner at Y Combinator).