Executive Vulnerability is Cool: Handle negative feedback like an asset, not a liability


This article summarizes my recent responses to a reporter on background for a story. It deals with how executives respond to negative feedback and offers suggestions for using this feedback to enhance an executive’s brand.

Historically, how have senior executives, as a group, handled negative feedback on the job? Do you see any difference today?

Executives have traditionally handled negative feedback as a personal affront rather than an opportunity to demonstrate their leadership acumen. Some executives’ responses to feedback imply that they must have all the answers and should never make mistakes. The behaviors resulting from this point of view include defensiveness, failure to take responsibility, creating distance from those offering the feedback, and letting others take the heat. Recently, some tech CEOs have rightly explained why their growth strategies did not work and partially explained why layoffs became necessary. These new behaviors are driven by the realization that employees and the public have more data than ever, so hiding the facts will not work. Employees and the public also make it clear that they value a more human approach to leadership. Leaders who accept responsibility are perceived to be more human and more likable. Leadership vulnerability is the new black! https://www.wsj.com/articles/its-the-new-saying-among-tech-ceos-i-apologize-11668109641

What’s preventing executives from more easily handling bad feedback and applying that feedback to company strategy/operations? Why do so many leaders have trouble with negative feedback?

As a society, we train leaders to stake out a vision, define strategic levers, and then guide an organization relentlessly in pursuit of those desired outcomes. However, the business environment, especially regarding talent, is so disrupted that the strategies must be agile enough to allow for the change, plus the inevitable unintended consequences. Rather than using only “all-in” approaches, leaders also need an “everything is an experiment until we know enough to call it a win (or loss)” approach. Leaders must be prepared to cut their losses more often and perhaps to say they were wrong about “A” but are already working on “B!”

What are your best tips for executives in handling negative feedback?

  • Escape from the “bubble”: Solicit feedback more often from people other than your direct reports.
  • Learn from the tip of the spear: Speak regularly to employees in direct contact with your customers and clients. Ask them, ” What are you doing that does not make sense to you?”
  • Switch from “consider the source” to “what are the kernels in this hard feedback that can make the business better”.

What mistakes do executives often make in receiving negative feedback?

  • Assuming that because the person providing the feedback is not like them (e.g., not a CEO, or an entrepreneur, for example), their feedback lacks value.
  • Failing to think about why the person cared enough to share the feedback. Why would they take the risk of offending the executive?