Do You Really Want Honest Feedback?

Most of us want constructive feedback like we want a punch in the stomach.

We know that to be most effective we need others to tell us how they see our performance and how we’re coming across. But this is not always pleasant.

I have been inspired lately by a few clients who received difficult feedback and took it to heart. Instead of avoiding, minimizing or retaliating against constructive criticism, these senior leaders found gold nuggets in the feedback and made changes to improve their effectiveness.

Here are a few suggestions, based on working with these leaders and hundreds of others, for getting the feedback you need:

  1. Ask and mean it. If you haven’t received feedback lately, have you asked for it? Or maybe you are like a couple of leaders I know who say, “Shoot straight with me…”, but everyone knows the unspoken rest of the sentence is “…at your own risk.”
  2. Pause, lean in and seek to understand. Resist the natural urge to be defensive or dismissive when someone gives you “negative” feedback. This will likely shut down the conversation, and you won’t get the benefit of hearing the full straight scoop. Or this will turn it into a “who’s right and who’s wrong” discussion – equally unproductive. Avoid sitting back, frowning, crossing your arms and giving a look that says, “How dare you question me, my decision or my performance!” Instead, take a deep breath, lean in, and ask genuinely, “do you have a suggestion on how I can improve here?”
  3. Give yourself time to process the feedback – emotionally and rationally. Constructive feedback may leave us feeling angry, disappointed or embarrassed. That’s normal. If you find your emotional blood pressure rising, pay attention. Strong emotions are like a warning light on a car’s dashboard. They help us know it may be time to slow down, pull over or look under the hood. Consider talking with a trusted advisor or friend. The sooner you can be honest about how you’re feeling about the feedback, the sooner you will be able to think more objectively, decide whether it’s valid and choose what you will do with it.
  4. Don’t shoot the messenger. It’s hard enough to hear a tough message that is delivered with genuine care and tact from someone you know and trust. As the saying goes: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend…” It can be even harder to hear a tough message that’s delivered insensitively or by a messenger you don’t trust or respect. See points 2 and 3 above to help yourself not throw the baby and the messenger out with the bathwater.
  5. Appreciate that feedback is a valuable gift. If someone takes the time to give you straight feedback, thank them. It’s hard and often risky to give honest feedback. So consider it. Look for the gold nuggets that may be there for you if you will unwrap it.

Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. In his work as a leadership consultant and executive coach, he often helps leaders get the feedback they need for greater individual and organizational performance and impact. You can reach him at or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr