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Receiving Feedback: A Key Skill for Inclusive Leadership

Candid feedback is pure gold for an organization. Feedback can highlight issues that may be tackled before they become major problems. Feedback from employees can lead to changes that improve employee satisfaction and retention.  

But practically speaking, receiving feedback can be awkward. It’s not easy to elicit candid feedback from employees, who may fear retaliation or resentment from management or their colleagues. When feedback is negative, it can feel like an attack, leading recipients to react defensively. Feedback can also uncover truths that are painful for managers to hear. But often it’s the candid observations of pain points (also “thorns” or “ouches”) that point to areas with the biggest potential for transformation. 

That’s why it’s important to seek feedback proactively and frequently. When managers understand that feedback – positive or negative – is a source of valuable insight, they intentionally carve out space for employees to provide that feedback.

Create safe spaces for gathering feedback

The challenge for managers is to help employees feel safe in offering feedback and to guide them in providing useful, actionable feedback. 

The first step: ask. Actively seek feedback. Build time for feedback into the agenda for group and one-on-one meetings. Ask questions such as: What else do you think the team may need from me to do your best work? What might I start, stop, or continue as we work together to maximize our best teamwork? 

How to welcome constructive feedback

Make it clear that you will welcome feedback. For example, I may open a conversation with a colleague by saying, “If I accidentally activate you by saying something you find upsetting or offensive, please let me know,  because that is not my intention.” 

Guide employees on how to offer feedback that is productive. I let people know that I welcome all feedback as long as it’s actionable, respectful, and constructive. I taught my daughter about what makes feedback constructive. “I hate broccoli” is not helpful feedback. It’s not actionable or constructive. Instead, I asked, “What other vegetables do you want instead?” That’s actionable! 

A helpful feedback model – WISH example

In conversations where feedback is shared, I also like to follow the WISH model: 

W – What is important to me is … (state the intention for the conversation using an “I” statement as to why you care to share in the first place)

I – I notice when you do or say X…(share the observed behavior)

S – Share feeling – I feel Y … (state the emotion the action creates for you))

H – Humbly ask for another alternative behavior to meet what you wish to see instead : I wish you might consider doing Z instead … (how does this sound to you?)

Inclusive language feedback in action

I saw that model in action recently in a situation where I received feedback. While speaking at an event, I used “people first” language in my talk. I mentioned “people experiencing homelessness” instead of “homeless people” or “the homeless,” thinking that was the inclusive way to describe that population.  

Someone in the audience spoke up: “Are you open to feedback?” 

“Yes,” I said. “What is important to me is that I use inclusive language. What did you notice?” 

“I noticed you were saying, ‘people experiencing homelessness,’” the audience member said. She felt I was not using the most current phrasing as a DEIB ally or role model. She wished I would say, “people who are unhoused” instead. 

“Certainly, I will commit to do better in the future,” I replied. “Thank you for the feedback.” 

That’s just one example of how WISH works. It keeps feedback focused on what is actionable, respectful, humble, and helpful. 

Be aware of power dynamics

As you encourage feedback, be aware of the power dynamics. Some employees may feel anxious about providing feedback to their supervisors. Women of color, especially, often expend a great deal of energy considering whether to speak up at all because they fear retaliation. Always respond to candid feedback with gratitude and encouragement, even if it stings a bit. 

Do not take it personally

Which leads to my next tip: Don’t take it personally. It’s easy to perceive negative feedback as an attack. Our natural instinct is to respond with defensiveness or anger. Instead, try to view feedback as a gift with real potential for positive change. Remember that, even if it hurts, feedback shared candidly is always more productive than situations where employees stay silent, with resentment simmering, or worse, complain behind your back. 

Seek to understand

Always seek to understand. Giving feedback may be anxiety-producing. The person providing feedback may not be tactful or even articulate. In that situation, it’s important to extend some grace. Listen. Ask follow-up questions. Restate what you’re hearing, in your own words, and ask if you’re understanding the person’s point correctly. 

Close the feedback loop

Finally, respond promptly and honestly to feedback. You may not always agree with the feedback provided. You may need time to think it over or to solicit others’ opinions. But make it clear the feedback was considered carefully and not ignored. If changes result, communicate those to the person who provided the feedback. 

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