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What to Do When Your Employees Tell You That You Suck

When an employee has the courage to give you negative feedback, you need to accept it as a gift.
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It's tough to receive negative feedback, but as a leader you must treat it as if it were a fine wine. Once the cork is out of the bottle, you need to identify its nuances and understand its valuable characteristics.

Roger Schwarz, an organizational psychologist and leadership consultant, says you must be open to listening to employees when they tell you things you're doing wrong. As uncomfortable as it may be to hear it, he says, the criticism is a "not-so-nicely wrapped" gift. "Effective leaders open these gifts, regardless of the wrapping, to learn what they are doing that's negatively affecting others on their team," he writes in the Harvard Business Review.

Schwarz, who is also the author of the book Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams: How You and Your Team Get Unstuck to Get Results, says the worst thing you can do is to dismiss the feedback or ignore it. Instead, take the opportunity to learn something valuable and improve your leadership skills. Here are his tips on how to do that.

Realize you feel threatened.

Schwarz says when an employee says something negative about your leadership, you'll immediately get defensive. But before you respond, recognize these feelings. "Notice when people say things that lead you to feel upset, surprised, or threatened," he writes. "When you feel this way, there is a good chance that you've just been given a gift that's poorly wrapped."

Find the gold.

It may not feel good, but there's a valuable lesson behind the criticism. The employee may be blunt or inelegant, but the delivery is unimportant. "When you focus on how the gift was delivered, it's easy to dismiss it as off-topic, ungrateful, or whiny," Schwarz writes. "But rejecting a gift doesn't make the underlying issue go away; it just prevents you from becoming aware of it and being able to address it. There is a Talmudic saying, 'Who is wise? He who learns from everyone.' Suspend your judgment about the wrapping, and focus on your opportunity for learning."

Be curious.

When it's time for you to talk, your response should elicit more explanation. Get to the root of the complaint and try to find out more. "This leads you to open the gift by saying something like, 'I thought I was fully supporting you, but it sounds like I wasn't. What was I doing--or not doing--that you thought wasn't supportive?' When you respond with curiosity and compassion, you learn things that people were previously unwilling to discuss with you," Schwarz writes. "Discussing these previously un-discussable issues enables you to solve problems that were previously unsolvable."

Foster trust.

If you follow these tips, you'll be giving a gift back to your employee. Accept the gift of criticism and be curious and compassionate--no one wants to work for Blake from Glengarry Glen Ross. "You are creating the trust needed to talk about things that really matter and that will lead to better results," Schwarz writes. "This type of gift is priceless."

Last updated: Apr 17, 2014

WILL YAKOWICZ | Staff Writer | Reporter, Inc.com

Will Yakowicz is a staff writer for Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and local politics for The Brooklyn Paper and was the editor of Park Slope Patch. He has also reported in the West Bank and Moscow for Tablet Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.




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