Nobody, regardless of one’s status in the corporate food chain, enjoys getting negative feedback. It’s a topic that often comes up on the leadership keynote speaker circuit. Even though the people I’ve spoken with understand that criticism is essential to the process of professional growth, they ALL expressed discomfort with the process. Now, I won’t say I’m any different, at heart; but I will share a few simple mindset adjustments that can make the process quite a bit more tolerable—regardless of whether you’re on the giving or receiving end.
1. Find the Teachable Moment.
GIVING: If you’ve risen to a leadership role in your company, I’d hope that you already understand the intrinsic value of constructive criticism. When delivering negative feedback to an employee, your goal should never be to chastise—but instead, to guide them toward the understanding of a more viable approach.
And, while your goal should indeed be to teach, I’ve found that an overly didactic approach can be off-putting. Instead, consider opening an honest dialogue with your employee about what might be done differently in the future. Treating the meeting as a brainstorm session rather than a visit to the principal’s office can help to diffuse any lingering intimidation.
RECEIVING: Early in my career, long before I became a leadership keynote speaker, I was employed as a commission-only sales executive at a large Ford dealership in Virginia. I had been in the role for about six months when I failed to follow up on a sales lead in a timely manner; the prospective customer ended up purchasing from a dealership across town.
My General Manager, who was admittedly a “tough love” type of leader, gave me advice that has stuck with me ever since. “Firstly,” he said, “don’t let me hear you complaining to the other guys about your problems. 90% of them just don’t care, and the other 10% are happy you are miserable—that means more opportunities for them. Secondly, don’t think that your early sales success here means that the fundamentals of selling no longer apply to you! If a customer calls you with an enquiry, you call back as soon as possible—or risk losing the sale.”
While it didn’t feel great to hear any of that, of course my GM was right. As the recipient of negative feedback, my learnings were twofold: (1) I’d learn from my mistake, never again failing to follow up on an enquiry, and (2) I’d absorb and endure what it felt like to receive “tough love” feedback, and tailor my own leadership style accordingly.
2. Understand it’s Not Personal.
GIVING: In my decades of management experience, along with the hundreds of scenarios I’ve discussed on the leadership keynote speaker circuit, I can’t think of a single situation in which an employee knowingly and maliciously made an egregious error.
Careless? Sure. Clueless? Occasionally. But understanding that your employee’s mistake wasn’t personal can help you tailor your feedback delivery toward neutral discussion. Over the years, I’ve found that the most constructive discussions don’t look back to dissect the original error, but instead look forward, in the spirit of collaborative problem-solving.
RECEIVING: When you’ve done something wrong, even in a professional setting, discussing it can feel like unpacking a bag of moldy gym clothes—it’s awkward and humiliating. But if there was one tiny realization that helped me ensure countless such conversations over the course of my career, it’s this: by choosing to have this conversation with you, your boss is demonstrating a commitment to helping you grow.
It may not feel this way in the moment; not all bosses are masters of constructive criticism, so it can be difficult not to feel (and even act) defensive. But the reality is: if your boss didn’t care about developing you as an employee, you’d likely be meeting with the HR Manager instead.
3. Make it a Clarifying Conversation.
GIVING + RECEIVING: Often, a noteworthy mistake can be a wake-up call for everyone, in revealing a lack of clarity with regard to roles, expectations, processes or all of the above. A client from the leadership keynote speaker circuit once told me about a minor mistake one of her marketing team members made; this kerfuffle, insignificant in its own right, nevertheless unveiled a total misunderstanding of the company’s recently redefined strategy!
Responsibility for this misunderstanding was both nebulous and a moot point—so everyone agreed to be thrilled about the small mistake early in the process, as it likely circumvented a more serious mistake down the line. If your business problem seems to be rooted in lack of clarity, both parties should take this opportunity to be proactive about what’s expected of— or needed from—them. In business, as in life, understanding is the first step to success.