Kim Scott's book Radical Candor changed how many leaders viewed feedback. She recommended that executives follow a path of blunt honesty that doesn't prevent empathy. Inspired by feedback from Sheryl Sandberg that the word "um" made Scott sound "stupid," Scott realized that beneath the sting was a great career lesson she should be grateful for.

Since then, many have tried leading with radical candor. The idea is that teammates will more quickly progress with straightforward -- rather than polite -- feedback. It also fuels a more open atmosphere, where ideas are debated and rejected or approved for the benefit of the company, not the protection of employees' feelings.

These are all great intentions. But what happens when the leaders who dish out that brutally honest feedback can't take it?

Leaders' Egos Get in the Way

The biggest culprit behind leaders' inability to get as good as they give: their egos. Leaders' charisma is key to attracting investments and gaining followers. But it can also, as a 2014 study in the Journal of Business Ethics showed, lead some to develop a more destructive narcissistic personality. Those with less destructive narcissistic personalities were better able to empower their teammates.

They're also more likely to be the recipients of useful, albeit potentially painful, feedback. As Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter explained in Harvard Business Review, as leaders' egos grow, they become isolated. "As we rise in the ranks, we acquire more power," Hougaard and Carter explain. "And with that, people are more likely to want to please us by listening more attentively, agreeing more, and laughing at our jokes."

Left unchecked, they say, leaders' egos can warp their values and corrupt their behavior. "When we believe we're the sole architects of our success, we tend to be ruder, more selfish, and more likely to interrupt others," Hougaard and Carter say. "This is especially true in the face of setbacks and criticism. In this way, an inflated ego prevents us from learning from our mistakes and creates a defensive wall that makes it difficult to appreciate the rich lessons we glean from failure."

In short, leaders' egos can lead them to adopt an "infallible" mindset, meaning they're unlikely to see others' feedback as valid or applicable. But if radical candor results in better-vetted ideas, open dialogue and self-awareness for employees, executives who avoid such honesty aren't getting those benefits. 

However, there are three ways you can become more receptive to honest feedback:

1. Recognize ego-driven moments for what they are.

When a burning feeling starts creeping up your neck or your stomach becomes a giant knot, acknowledge those physical responses. If you're hearing something you're not thrilled about, you're likely to feel vulnerable. And your first reaction, as an ego-driven leader, will be to attack back or quickly dismiss the feedback.

Don't do that. Pause instead. Not only will it salvage your relationship with the colleague or partner willing to communicate difficult feedback, but it will also let you save face while you analyze it. If nothing else, tell the other person, "I'd never seen it that way. Let me think about it some more and come back to you." That's not admitting failure -- it's being thoughtful. I did this after a colleague told me that I tended to rush into my ideas without testing others' first. I took a step back and realized he was right -- and then asked him what he'd do differently.

2. Solicit feedback fairly.

If you're like most leaders, your company sends out some sort of survey assessing employee satisfaction. Don't be the one sending it or receiving it; you'll never get the honesty you're after. Assign this task to an even-handed leader who can anonymously filter and disseminate the feedback. Without being able to label a piece of feedback as irrelevant due to the sender, you'll have to spend more time processing it and determining what kinds of situations it happens in and how you can fix it. 

3. Open yourself up to more feedback when it hurts.

Our instinct when we're hurt is to hide and protect ourselves. When feedback hurts, however, repress that urge and ask others what they think. If you're in a team brainstorm, ask, "What would you guys do?" If you're in a one-in-one, ask, "How do you think that could have been handled differently?" If you're talking to an external partner or mentor, ask about their experiences. This secondary feedback can point you to options without defensiveness.

Brutally honest feedback can be hard for anyone to take. But as the leader everyone looks to, you can't let your ego take the driver's seat. Learn to pause and take in feedback before reacting to it. You'll not only model great behavior for your team, but you'll learn something, too.

Published on: Jul 16, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.