How Should You Respond to Unwanted Feedback?

As a leader, you have certainly been the recipient of unwelcome feedback. The comments may have focused on your leadership style, specific actions or remarks of yours, your attitudes or some combination thereof. Perhaps it arrived in the form of criticism. Worse yet, it may have come inscribed on a pink farewell note. Even if the remark was delivered with constructive intent, you may have resented the experience and sought opportunities to get back at the source of your reproach, or at least gain satisfaction from said person’s next slip up.

All of this is normal. Some may call it natural or even healthy. But as someone who has received his fair share of criticism over the years, my suggestion is to learn all you can from the feedback and then move on as quickly and completely as possible. 

There is nothing to be gained from harboring negative thoughts, nor does it pay to hold out for some form of vindication. The best form of payback you can offer is doing a better job the next time. 

Leaders should not seek to get payback anyway. Such thinking is limiting and focuses you completely in the wrong direction. When we think of retribution, or even simply hold onto some form of animosity, we allow ourselves to remain stuck and focus on events that have already occurred. The best way onward is to be forward-thinking and to see how we can make today and every day the very best and most productive of our careers.

I am not suggesting that all criticism is fair and well-intentioned. Sometimes it is motivated by insecurity. Other times, it may be driven by jealousy. Certainly, you are not obligated to gladly and willingly accept everyone’s slap on the cheek and then turn your head for one more on the other side. But we must be able to separate the intent and words of the criticizer from what we ultimately do with his or her message.

Keep in mind that almost every form of criticism—even that which is born from malintent—can teach us something powerful about ourselves. Certainly, if someone “has it out for you,” he or she will seize upon an area of perceived or accepted weakness in order to build a credible case. When an attribute or behavior is singled out, let me assure you there’s at least some kernel of truth in what’s being said. Doing something about that issue, including finding out what’s rubbing people and taking steps to improve in that area, will serve you well long into the future, probably well after your relationship with the other party has ended.   

So with this said, the next time someone approaches you with unwanted feedback, consider doing the following:

  • Listen well. Hear out the person providing the feedback without interruption. Mirror back what you heard for clarification. If there is something you disagree with, hold it until the end. This validates them and opens further lines of communication. It’s always best for the concern to come directly to you rather than to others.  

  • Respond carefully. Avoid getting defensive. Leave your ego at the door and accept warranted concerns as well as viable advice. If you are unsure about the validity of the feedback or what to do with it, ask for time to respond. Make sure to get back to the other party in a timely fashion and with a real game plan. And then ask for feedback about the plan.

  • Thank them. Let the person know you appreciate the fact that they brought this matter to you and didn’t go around you. They easily could have; it would have been less risky and more comfortable for them to do so. Let them know that you appreciate this growth opportunity. 

  • Seek more feedback. Chances are others also have opinions about the matter at hand. Seek out people whose opinion you trust and try to gauge the broader impact of your actions, words, etc. Just how widespread is this concern? 

  • Do something. This may be the hardest step. No one likes to change—hey, if your behaviors got you to the top, why would they not keep you there? But we all know leadership requires a whole different set of skills and sometimes we go into our posts without such training and awareness. Seek to identify, alone or with a trusted confidant or coach, a set of actions that can help you grow as a leader. 

We all want to hear that we’re doing well. Feedback is the breakfast of champions, but no one wants to be an emperor without clothes, or worse yet, a dethroned emperor. Whether the feedback you receive is solicited (ideal) or not, be sure to make good use of it so you can become the very best leader possible and lead an inspired and engaged team forward.


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Naphtali Hoff, Psy.D., is president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting. Check out his leadership book, “Becoming the New Boss.” Read his blog, and listen to his leadership podcast. Download his free new e-book, “How to Boost Your Leadership Impact.”

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