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How to give and receive feedback. Keys for leaders

You might think you’re open to constructive criticism of your leadership. But as expert Sheila Heen points out: For all that we want to grow and improve, we also want to be accepted, respected and loved just the way we are.

Heen says that it’s this essential contradiction – the urge to improve versus the need for approbation – that makes it challenging to receive feedback without getting defensive or losing motivation.

For senior executives, the challenge is even greater. Often as not, more junior employees will resist criticism of the boss for fear of negative payback.

Giving feedback to employees can also be challenging, with the risk of derailing someone’s progress or denting confidence in the attempt to correct behaviors.

However, failing to give and receive honest feedback could seriously hurt your business. It can lead to unchecked inefficiencies and practices, and hamper growth.

Improving our feedback culture is something that needs to start with senior executives. Leaders must themselves learn to solicit and accept negative feedback, in order to set a tone and example for other employees to do the same. 

How to give feedback

First of all, the most important thing to keep in mind is to avoid this question at all costs: “Do you have any feedback for me? ” It’s dangerous because it does not specify concrete aspects of the performance to be improved and it’s not effective. Better ask questions that will lead to specific answers like:

  • How can I make meetings more effective?
  • Which of my tasks should I improve and how?
  • What has gone wrong in this phase of the project?

Always remember that 92% of professionals believe that negative feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.

With these basic starting points you will be able to give more thoughtful and useful feedback. But what’s the best way to do that? IESE professor Albert Ribera offers some tips.

1. Choose an appropriate setting

Choose a quiet space that facilitates focused and uninterrupted communication.

2. Be respectful

Never judge the person you’re evaluating and keep in mind the sensitivity of each employee.

3. Be specific

Avoid vague generalizations and discuss concrete actions that are both clearly communicated and feasible.

4. Link the impact to the organization

Keep in mind how the evaluated actions and behavior affects goals or the corporate culture.

5. Stay relevant

Prioritize the truly essential aspects of the person’s performance without falling into vagueness that does not make the person grow.

6. Avoid surprises

Perform evaluations with regular consistency.

give feedback keys

How to receive feedback

We know that not everyone takes criticism in a good way, but we should. Of course, as long as critiques are respectful, valuable and constructive. While being evaluated you must listen and digest the comments without reacting abruptly and in a negative way. Here are the keys to being able to receive feedback like a true leader.

1. Separate yourself from your performance

Performance is important, but it doesn’t define your value as a person.

2. Don’t take it personally

Interpret the evaluator’s comments as being well-intentioned rather than a personal judgment. They are meant to help you.

3. Look at it as an opportunity to improve

Think of ways to put the suggestions into practice.

4. Recognize your own biases

Self-awareness means identifying your emotional tendencies and tics, such overdramatizing.

5. Ask for the basis of the feedback

Some criticisms may be unfair or out of line. You may ask your supervisor to be specific, to explain what the assessment is based on and to refer to other’s opinions, too.

6. Ask for time to digest the feedback

If you feel strong emotions brewing, ask for time to reflect on the feedback before responding.

The feedback culture in your organization

Improving your own ability, as a leader, to solicit and utilize constructive criticism is the first step. But people – and companies – need mechanisms in place in order to give and receive feedback. And a corporate culture that encourages it.

  1. Make it clear that you want to receive feedback.
  2. Thank people who offer it.
  3. Establish regular avenues for feedback.
  4. Seek as much specific information as possible.
  5. Try informal get-togethers to touch base.
  6. Show that you are serious: ask questions, listen, take notes.
  7. Communicate results.
  8. Steer clear of issues unrelated to professional performance.

Where there is a general reluctance to criticize, you’ll see creativity and innovation suffer. Once an appraisal system is formalized within a firm, it helps if there is diversity and approachability among senior managers. And if those responsible for achieving objectives are recognized and rewarded.

Send the message that you, as a leader, are there to help employees and to listen to them, even if what they have to say about you is not so easy to hear. Learn more in this article about the The power of face-to-face conversations.


IESE’s executive and master’s training programs can help you harness these leadership skills to manage your teams and create a healthy environment of criticism and constructive growth.

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