My client, we’ll call her Amy, was receiving critical feedback, and she was upset. Her direct reports were skipping constructive criticism and going straight for harsh descriptions of her leadership style. Several of her team members described her as demanding, too bossy, and overly emotional. 

As a senior executive, Amy understood how important it was to engage and motivate her team. She had worked for both good and bad bosses and recognized the differences between them. She was shocked and hurt by the feedback, and unsure of how to handle the criticism with grace. 

Before receiving critical feedback, try to understand where it’s coming from

It is critically important for senior leaders to understand how others see them, and it is often difficult for them to get candid feedback. At the same time, giving and receiving feedback is a complex skill. These communications are influenced by the sender, the receiver, and the context. My job was to help Amy understand and process the feedback she had received and use it to grow as a leader. Together we identified four elements that contribute to critical feedback — and how to interpret them.

The broad business culture of giving and receiving feedback

One of our first observations was that the critical feedback came from female members of her team. Research has shown that women in the workplace can be especially critical of each other. While women are often highly supportive of each other, in some settings women can be competitive, undermining, and unforgiving. 

My colleagues, Andrea Kramer and Alton Harris, have written about the “Goldilocks Dilemma” that women leaders face: not too strong, not too weak, just right. While the Goldilocks Dilemma is not limited to woman-to-women interactions, it is often especially apparent in these relationships.

Given this context, it’s quite possible that Amy’s leadership style is actually appropriate. She may just need to work on responding to and empowering the women on her team to reduce this negative dynamic.

The company culture and how it impacts feedback and criticism

The culture at ABC Company, where Amy worked, had some dysfunctional communication patterns. In particular, people rarely gave each other direct feedback, either positive or negative. Even in the C-suite, communication was often indirect. People would learn how they were doing through back channels rather than through candid conversation. This fostered a “mean girls” culture in which employees banded together to nurture their grievances instead of addressing issues directly. In some cases, employees found they could gain status by going over their manager’s head and complaining to his or her boss. 

In order to better glean constructive feedback instead of backbiting, Amy may need to create settings in which people feel safe to give each other direct, candid feedback. It can also be helpful to provide training in the relevant communication skills, including receiving constructive criticism. Amy may also need to accept that, in some circumstances, a toxic culture is so deeply entrenched that it is unlikely for one leader to change it. In these cases, all you can do is take the feedback with a grain of salt. 

Understanding the constructive criticism that comes with Amy’s leadership style 

The sharp feedback may be accurate. At least some of the time, Amy may come across as demanding, bossy, and overly emotional. One way for Amy to assess this is to ask herself, “Is this feedback I have heard before?” If it is consistent over time, settings, and people, it’s probably true. But if it doesn’t fit with how others usually perceive her, then something external is probably triggering the negative reaction. 

To explore this honestly requires a high degree of courageous and honest self-reflection. Amy has to get past her hurt feelings and defensiveness and take a good, hard look at her interactions with her team members. My job as her coach includes providing honest feedback about my own perceptions of her leadership style. I may also be able to help facilitate candid conversations between Amy and her team.

Accepting that employees’ own baggage is part of receiving feedback at work

Just like on the playground, sometimes feedback is less about the receiver and more about the giver. There are two unconscious psychological processes that may come into play:

  1. Transference. Sometimes a person in your current environment reminds you of someone from your past in ways you are not aware of. If that person from the past was unpleasant or hurtful, you may find yourself disliking the new person for no good reason. For example, if Amy reminded one of the women of her second-grade teacher who humiliated her in front of the class, that woman might be prone to see Amy as arrogant and demeaning to her, regardless of the current reality.
  2. Projection. People tend to be most critical of traits in others that they dislike in themselves. Again, this is an unconscious process. If one of the women is uncomfortable with her own competitiveness, she is likely to over-react when she perceives that trait in Amy.

Amy is not in a position to explore the unconscious dynamics of her team members. She can, however, recognize when feedback is simply inaccurate and not spend her energy worrying about it or trying to fix it. 

Learning how to take criticism without getting defensive involves looking to context

As we worked through these four elements, Amy was able to identify which parts of the feedback were valid and which were the result of forces outside of her control. With the right information in hand, we designed a development program for her to grow her leadership skills. We also identified some interventions to help reduce the friction on her team. Six months later, an employee engagement survey revealed a considerable improvement in how her team members saw Amy’s leadership style.

If you’re dealing with difficult feedback — or just trying to improve your performance — email me at ggolden@gailgoldenconsulting.com

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