Not many people love to be told they’re doing something wrong. But for entrepreneurs and high-level corporate executives, avoiding criticism can allow a toxic workplace culture, one in which people are afraid to speak their mind, to take hold. Leadership expert Izzy Galicia shares his views on why embracing feedback — even negative words — can break the cycle of dysfunction.
One of the most challenging things for new entrepreneurs is learning how to handle negative feedback. As a business leader — particularly if your company is growing rapidly — you will experience feedback from many sources, from corporate boards criticizing company performance to Wall Street analysts delivering “sell” critiques on your company’s stock.
At a point, it can begin to feel like everyone in the world is against you and wants to tear your company down. But the important thing is to react to this negative feedback in a meaningful and productive way.
Embracing negative feedback for positive use
Successful leaders can take negative feedback and use it as a constructive learning experience. The whole point of being an entrepreneur is growth, and it is impossible to grow without learning. The most important thing a business leader can do to prime their company for success is committing to continuous improvement, and part of that is knowing how to embrace negative feedback for the better.
To welcome this spirit of continuous improvement, many companies have adopted what they call an “employee-first” (also known as feedforward or feedback-forward) culture, but creating this employee-focused culture can often be easier said than done. An insincere approach to employee feedback can be just as detrimental — if not more so — than not welcoming feedback at all.
Unfortunately, even in workplace cultures where feedback is supposedly welcome, many business leaders tend to exhibit an “I know better” persona. C-suite executives often think they know best because it is “their company.” However, few people know the company better than the people doing most of the legwork — the main employee base.
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Overcoming workplace toxicity
That being said, this mindset might not be entirely the fault of the current generation of business leaders. Many C-suite executives grew up with and trained in a system plagued by workplace toxicity and poor leadership behavior. Indeed, a recent study shows that 85% of freshly minted CEOs fell into one of four categories before ascending to the top position in the company: chief operating officer, divisional CEO, chief financial officer or leapfrog leader.
As such, we can see that workplace toxicity is not a recent phenomenon but perpetuation of a harmful culture that has reared its ugly head throughout much of the history of the business world. Correcting this toxicity is not as simple as taking employee surveys or opening up a comment box. It requires changing many fundamental practices and institutions of the business world.
One such practice that has proven particularly detrimental to the workplace is C-level leaders “instructing” their employees on how to provide feedback. For example, in one workshop I joined that was designed to teach employees of a high-profile company how to best provide negative feedback to a C-level leader, some of the tips offered included providing a “sincere compliment” prior to communicating a concern or using “positive, non-judgmental language” to address issues.
Although the intention behind initiatives such as these may be well-meaning, they tend to have the opposite effect. Rather than empowering employees to speak up, this sort of instruction tends to make employees feel more intimidated when giving feedback to their superiors. By showing the “right” way to give feedback, employers are implying that there is a “wrong” way to do so, which discourages many people from speaking up.
When a C-level leader does not know how to handle negative feedback properly, it can affect the entire organization. Dismissing negative feedback or shutting oneself off from any criticism can cause business leaders to miss genuinely useful suggestions, which, in turn, could have substantial consequences on employee morale.
The natural behavior of humans is to surround ourselves with like-minded individuals. In business, this habit can be particularly destructive. If a business leader surrounds themselves with “yes men” and doesn’t take the time to listen to any alternative perspectives, they will find themselves in an echo chamber. Not only does this echo chamber leave the business vulnerable, as the wrong unchallenged mistake could cause the entire business to crumble, but it also neuters potential opportunities for growth by suppressing many voices throughout the employee base.
How C-suite leaders can improve their workplace culture and embrace feedback
Companies must strive to break this cycle of suppressing negative feedback and create a space where criticism is welcome. One of the easiest ways employers can create an environment conducive to feedback — including negative feedback — is by offering employees ways to provide truly anonymous feedback. And this doesn’t mean putting a comment box in plain view in the office. Truly anonymous feedback requires creating a method for providing feedback where the employee’s identity is completely unknown by leaders.
This type of negative feedback should be accepted from employees at all levels. Everyone — from the VPs of the company to the entry-level employees and the interns — has a unique perspective on what does and doesn’t work.
The goal of a workplace is to be accommodating to all, and doing so requires understanding the needs of everyone. There is no better way to find this than by hearing it from the source itself.
Business leaders must ensure they embrace this negative feedback and recognize it for what it is: a gift. Taking employee feedback is one thing, but if a company does not act upon the feedback given to them, employees will begin to feel disillusioned with the workplace and begin to feel like they aren’t being valued — or worse yet, being lied to by their employers.
These days, it is harder than ever for a company to earn the trust of its employees. It takes hard work and commitment to create a work environment that fits all employees’ needs and wants for the workplace. Still, with a continued and committed effort to create a company culture that prioritizes trust, along with unflinching authenticity, employees can feel much more comfortable and valued while they are at work.
Accepting negative feedback is not often something that comes naturally to high-level leaders, nor is it typically taught. Instead, successful leaders must learn how to do so on their own by adopting strategies that will make their employees feel more comfortable giving negative feedback and criticism. Doing so will provide your company with the opportunities it needs to grow and improve.