You Can Take It! How To Accept Negative Feedback With Ease

February 12, 2021

Employee FeedbackMost people assume that given a choice between receiving positive or negative feedback, the majority would choose positive. To test that assumption, my colleague Jack Zenger and I created a psychometrically valid assessment that measured preferences for both receiving and/or avoiding positive and negative feedback. The assessment used a series of paired comparison items to distinguish the participants’ preferences. After analyzing the results for a global sample of 8,715 respondents, we discovered that only 22% indicated that they preferred receiving positive feedback, while 66% expressed a stronger preference for receiving negative feedback. A small group, 12%, had an equal preference.

Does Your Preference For Getting Feedback Impact Your Effectiveness?

Regardless of your preference for one kind of feedback over another, and whether you want it or not, everyone receives feedback. The question that interested us was, does having a preference affect what you do with that feedback?

We combined the results from our self-assessment of feedback preferences with 360-degree evaluations of each leader’s effectiveness. The 360-degree assessment used was Zenger Folkman’s The Extraordinary Leader™ survey, which measures 16 competencies that are the key skills leaders need to transition from good managers to great leaders. Combining the data from both assessments gave us 588 leaders for whom we had responses for both assessments. We then broke the feedback preference data down into four groups. The table below shows each of the groups and the percentage of the population in each. (If you would like to take this feedback survey click here.)

% of Population
Avoiding positive and negative 2.3%
Avoiding negative – prefer positive 6.2%
Prefer negative – avoid positive 18.0%
Prefer positive and negative 65.8%

Note that only a small population of leaders didn’t want any feedback at all. Surprisingly, 18 percent of our population preferred negative feedback and actively avoided positive feedback — some people resist praise and recognition, feeling it to be disingenuous and mere flattery. Note that 7.7% of the respondents did not have strong preferences either way and were not classified.

The graph below shows the overall leadership effectiveness score as broken down into four groups. Note that those who avoid negative feedback have significantly lower scores than those who prefer to receive negative feedback. By combining the groups avoiding negative feedback and the groups preferring negative feedback we found a statistically significant difference (t = 2.444, Sig = 0.015).

Resistance Is Futile

Resisting receiving corrective feedback does not make the feedback disappear, nor does it improve your effectiveness: Feedback is a gift, not a punishment. Resisting feedback keeps a person from improving.

For those who avoided positive feedback the impact was not significant; however, developing a preference for receiving negative feedback can have a profound positive influence on a leader’s effectiveness. We identified the top behaviors that separated those who had a preference for receiving negative feedback from those who avoid it.

An old Swedish proverb says, “With the eating, comes the appetite.” In other words, if you change the behaviors, the attitudes will follow. By practicing the following behaviors, a leader can change their preference for accepting negative feedback.

1. Ask For And Accept Feedback. Nothing can do more to convince others that you want feedback than to ask for it. Some worry that asking for feedback makes a person appear weak and incompetent, but it has the opposite effect. Asking for feedback makes a person appear confident and willing to do more to improve.

2. Be A Role Model And Walk Your Talk. Those who resist negative feedback tend to not be role models and fail to honor commitments. Often these are not big deceptions, but rather things like telling their direct reports they are doing fine and then giving them a lower rating on their performance review. Those who resist negative feedback never hear about their inconsistencies because everyone knows they don’t want the feedback.

3. Show Consideration For Others. Leaders who resist negative feedback are often thought of as inconsiderate of others. They care more about getting a project done than the personal needs or concerns of others. Because of their strong desire to resist negative feedback, they are often completely unaware of these issues. Staying in touch with the issues and concerns of others will open up feedback channels.

4. Build Trust. Those who resist negative feedback are usually not trusted. This extends beyond personal trust to trusting judgment, ideas, and opinions. Resisting negative feedback makes trust a one-way street, where others can never push back or question motives or judgment. Loss of trust has a significant negative impact on an individual’s ability to lead and garner the support of others.

5. Openness To Feedback. Those who resist negative feedback often prefer to work independently rather than collaborating with others. Being open to feedback from others is a basic requirement of collaborative relationships. Openness to feedback is a visible evidence of collaboration.

6. Develop Others. Demonstrate your concern and consideration for others by looking for opportunities to develop their skills and abilities. A key issue in developing others is providing honest and candid feedback, both positive and negative. Our data strongly suggests that those who resist receiving negative feedback also resist giving it to others. Begin by providing others with positive feedback and then, when appropriate, provide useful negative feedback.

The Impact Of Confidence On Feedback

There is a strong correlation between a person’s preference for accepting negative feedback and their level of self-confidence. Confidence usually increases as a person improves their skill. Most negative feedback is intended to help a person improve, especially when it is delivered respectfully. Not knowing key information does not help, nor does being in the dark about the impressions of others. Help comes in the form of good, honest feedback. Resisting negative feedback keeps people who often need it most from improving. Your career can flourish if you open yourself up to, ask for, and embrace negative feedback.

-Joe Folkman
(This article first appeared on Forbes.)

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Learn more about Zenger Folkman’s 360-Degree Assessments and leadership development workshops on our website.  Sign up for our Newsletter to receive updates on our latest podcasts, leadership webinars, and events

Other Podcasts and Articles 

Episode 7: The Enigma of Positive and Negative Feedback 

ZFCO Episode 7
The 90th Percentile: An Unconventional Leadership Podcast Episode 7