Because leaders are so often in uncharted waters, feedback regularly becomes a lifeline that directs decisions and, ultimately, the entire course of their businesses.

But the ironic thing about human nature is that no matter how ignorant or inexperienced we might be, we still have our egos. So what do you do when you need advice or ideas, and everybody from your current mentor to your 90-year-old sassy grandma wants to play expert and tell you what to do?

"Narrowing where feedback comes from is essential to ensure that you don't spend too much time mulling over multiple options," asserts Rebecca Miller, chief marketing officer for Smoothie King. "At times, too much feedback can act as a deterrent from applying actionable insights."

Chuck Runyon, CEO and co-founder of Anytime Fitness, similarly notes that leaders are  bombarded with data from virtually every source. Subsequently, he says, you have to find a feedback "Goldilocks zone."

"You can't listen too much or too little. You need to listen 'just right' to make the best decision for the business."

A big part of your job is to decide which people have sway, and sort the golden gems of wisdom from the trash. For this process, there are some things to watch for.

Direct exposure to the work

Runyon notes you're going to be pulled further and further away from your business as it grows--that is, you'll have new responsibilities that force you away from what you used to handle. Look at how close your potential feedback source is to your front lines. If they're truly in the thick of it, their exposure should give them important insights about what's working, what's necessary, and how both your workers and customers feel.

Expertise and ability to source

"Feedback becomes meaningful when the communicator has content to share that is grounded in expertise that is directly related to the topic at hand," says Miller. "It then becomes applicable when the communicator states points of reference that serve to reinforce his/her point. [Look at] how much credibility a person has as a subject matter expert, and if that person's past contributions have turned out to be fruitful."

Mark  Lyso, executive vice president of operations at East Coast Wings + Grill, values expert specificity and relevance, as well.

"If the feedback becomes too general," he says, "further query is needed to break the feedback into understandable parts, such as how to act and change approach."

Trust

If someone has had your back in the past and given you great advice, they're probably not going to intentionally steer you wrong now. So Miller weighs how much she trusts the other person in deciding whether to give their feedback significance.

Lyso also says that while it takes time, patience and vulnerability, establishing trust becomes especially critical if you're genuinely interested in growing others and feedback is on the sparse side.

"Trust is everything in business and personal relationships. [It] allows the person providing the feedback a 'safe place' where they can express freely, as long as boundaries have established."

Gut instinct

From the scientific perspective, much of your gut instinct isn't really "instinct" at all--it's your brain pulling together a bunch of subconscious beliefs and biases that you've learned over your lifetime. So, while it can seem random, it's based heavily in your experience. And if you get enough quality practice in an environment that can give you good, reliable cues, your instinct is surprisingly accurate and trustworthy.

"Everyone is going to have a different perspective on any given situation, based on their experiences and point of view," says Miller, "so it's important you have the confidence to do what you think is right."

"With so much reliance on data, leaders have become afraid to use their instincts," says Runyon. "Sometimes a decision has to be made with your gut. And remember, no one wants to follow a heartless or gutless leader!"

And if you think about all these points and still have trouble figuring out which feedback is reliable, Miller says don't forget sources like articles on related topics, third-party research, and published best practices. Even when you can't talk to someone one-on-one, these options can ground you and get you on the right path.

Published on: Sep 25, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.