“Dad, I find you very hard on me lately,” my 11-years old son told me recently. I taught him to speak up and, as a result, I’m regularly confronted with his feedback. Although I appreciate him speaking up, I felt my body boiling and my thoughts going wild. “What does he think. I’m really soft with him. If he finds this hard, what if….”

Yeah, feedback is not always nice to hear and does have an effect on you.

This is the last article of our series dedicated to feedback. In our first article we explained ways to overcome your fear of feedback. In our second article we shared a proven method to give feedback in a way that contributes to your team members’ personal development. This third article is about how to unpack feedback you receive.

Why would you want to receive feedback?

Receiving feedback is essential to your own personal development. To put in the words of Jim Yong Kim, former president of the World Bank: “No matter how good you think you are as a leader, my goodness, the people around you will have all kinds of ideas for how you can get better. So, for me the most fundamental thing about leadership is to have the humility to continue to get feedback and to try to get better – because your job is to try to help everybody else get better.” Additionally, feedback reinforces trust between you and your senior leaders: constructively receiving honest feedback from employees, and acting on it, can help show your vulnerability – which is a key component of trust.

As a CEO, showing genuine interest and vulnerability when receiving feedback sends a clear message to the whole organization: feedback is a gift. Reducing the threshold for your team members to give feedback to the CEO will embolden them to give feedback to their own team members and to their peers. In the end you want to create the sense that giving and receiving constructive, respectful feedback is part of day-to-day life – it doesn’t need to be an excruciating experience, and it doesn’t need to wait until the dreaded annual performance review.

Finally: regularly receiving feedback from your senior leaders will also give you a sense of how good they are at giving feedback to their team members – and identify potential needs for additional training or coaching.

“I am open to feedback and yet I am not receiving any”

We have noticed over the years that many CEOs would love to receive feedback, yet most don’t get much. Feedback is like dating in college: “being available” is not enough to make it work. Proactively ask for feedback. Don’t say that “my door is open”; go to your team’s door and ask if you can come in! Make sure that they understand that their feedback is IMPORTANT to you.

This may seem awkward at the beginning. Your team members may not say much or may give superficial feedback. The first time you ask for feedback you may receive compliments disguised as feedback. This doesn’t mean that you are flawless though – you’re not. Don’t stop asking for feedback. The second time you may receive feedback on the color of your tie. The third time you may start receiving some actionable, insightful feedback. Keep at it to make clear to your team how important feedback is to you. After a while you will receive the feedback that your team has always wanted to give you about this side of your behavior that drives them crazy – and you will finally be able to grow. Rome wasn’t built in a day – neither is the trust of your team members to give you feedback.

It is crucial that you act upon your team’s feedback and follow up with that person with the actions you have taken as well as their results. Consider the first feedback they give you as a test: your team wants to find out whether giving you feedback is a kiss of death, and what you will do with their feedback. When you receive feedback on the color of your tie, act on it; you can even make fun of yourself. It will show your openness to be vulnerable and to listen – and will encourage your team to be bolder in their feedback to you.

How to receive feedback?

Reacting defensively kills feedback and the willingness of people around us to speak up. And yet it is often our natural reaction when we receive feedback. Just like any other skill, receiving feedback needs to be learned. Mike Goldman in “Breakthrough Leadership Team” suggests: “When I ask a leadership team to give feedback to one another, I give them two instructions when receiving feedback:

  • You can only say “Thank you” or ask clarification questions.
  • You cannot say that you disagree or argue.”

As in many aspects of business life, you, as the CEO, need to set the example. If you react defensively when your senior leaders give you feedback, they may do the same when their team gives them feedback – and the rest of the company will follow.

Giving feedback is not easy. Therefore, when you receive feedback, be comprehensive – especially when receiving feedback from a subordinate. Listen to the feedback in a way to understand the positive intentions of the person giving you feedback – even if you don’t like the word choice.

Sometimes you get overwhelmed by emotions when receiving feedback. Yes, you can get angry, yes, you can feel sad that all the efforts you put in are misunderstood or misinterpreted, yes, you may want to take revenge.

Your anger is a good sign: An emotion is a messenger that this topic is important to you. The stronger the emotion, the more valuable the feedback. All you do is for the good of your company and of your team. But sometimes your beliefs or actions have a harmful side-effect – on the company, the team or the person giving you feedback. It may be worth considering this alternative point of view with a curious, non-judgmental view – instead of discarding the feedback right away.

Coming back to my personal life, I have noticed that all strong, difficult moments are a messenger to develop myself. Even though I didn’t see it that way at the moment. When I receive harsh feedback, I try to focus on this: what can I leverage from this harsh feedback to become a better version of myself?

It can be helpful to view feedback as a gift from a friend. When you receive the gift and unpack it, even if it is not the perfect gift for you, you know that something is perfectly clear: your friend took time out of their busy day to get you this gift because they sincerely thought that it was good for you. Their intentions are noble.


Receiving honest feedback is key to your personal development, but your initial reactions can discourage your team members from giving you more feedback.

Kevin Lawrence in “Your Oxygen Mask First” advises CEOs to “find the truth-tellers: they deliver the truth that you don’t want to hear, and most people don’t want to tell you. Keep them close. And, most importantly, ensure that you don’t make their life difficult when they give you the straight goods.”

Creating a feedback culture starts with you. As a CEO you set the tone of how your team members should give and receive feedback. If you never ask for feedback from your senior leaders, they may not ask for feedback from their teams either – or not often enough. Like any other skills, giving and receiving needs to be learned and practiced regularly: nobody is born with a natural talent for feedback. Feedback is not about blaming each other and changing the past, it is about helping each other improve in the future. Constructive feedback has a bias towards action and change.

What about you? When was the last time you received genuine feedback from your team? How many times a month do you ask for open, unvarnished feedback?

This article has been co-written by:

  • Johan van Eeckhout, executive and team coach (more information: Praesta France : Cabinet de coaching) – As a professional coach, I enlarge the relational footprint of Leaders and Management teams to improve efficiency, performance and creativity.
  • Xavier Lederer, business growth coach (more information: Ambrose Growth | Business Coaching & Consulting) – As a business coach, I work with founders of mid-market companies who are frustrated because their business is not growing the way they want – their company has outgrown their management approach. I help them adjust their management approach to get back on track to profitable growth. Lack of honest feedback is often one of their roadblocks, because it slows down their team’s personal development – which slows down the company growth. I would like to learn about your growth roadblocks; contact me to discuss at Xavier@AmbroseGrowth.com.