How to manage negative feedback and nurture trust as a leader

- Leadership

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by Beverly Clair

When you’re the boss, it can be surprising to receive negative feedback. People give positive feedback more easily but negative feedback can be a bit tougher. The average employee is going to think twice before they let you know they’re not happy with the way you do things.

This is not a healthy state of affairs. Constructive feedback regarding areas where you’ve fallen short is essential if you are to progress. You need employees who can trust you enough to speak up. And the best way to nurture this trust is to learn to take negative feedback well when it’s given.

Negative feedback can hurt. All the more when it’s completely unexpected. So, let’s look at some ways to keep your cool, take feedback on board, and develop a deeper trust among your workforce.

Stay cool when receiving negative feedback

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The number one rule of receiving negative feedback is to remain calm. Of course, there is no upside to freaking out at a colleague who dares to criticize you – all you will do is discourage further feedback from your team. But it isn’t always easy to keep your cool and reduce stress when somebody criticizes you unexpectedly, especially if that criticism hits a nerve.

That’s why it’s important to learn how to stay calm whether you agree with the feedback and the way it is delivered or not. There is no true authority in blowing up in a colleague’s face. When somebody approaches you to offer feedback, your first step should be to compose yourself, relax your shoulders and breathe slowly to reduce stress. Keep your arms open to keep your mind open and maintain eye contact to build trust. Your job now is to listen, hear your colleagues out and only interrupt if you need clarification – not to argue or respond. The time will come for that part.

The first thing to say is to thank your colleague for their words, whatever spirit they were delivered in. Saying ‘thank you’ helps to frame the situation as a positive one. Don’t apologize until you’ve processed what was said and you’re sure an apology is necessary. But then do so genuinely and humbly (although you should only do so once).

Maybe you need more time to process the feedback. Take a minute to let it sink in, so that you respond with your smart mind and not your emotional gut. Ask for a follow-up meeting if you need to think more deeply about whether the colleague’s feedback was appropriate, and so that you can develop a plan to fix and improve on whatever the complaint was about.


Feedback is great. It gives you something concrete from which to improve and drive your business forward – particularly if the feedback came with specific examples of where you’ve gone wrong (so be sure to ask for examples if none were given).

Criticism has an awful habit of swirling around uselessly in your mind if you don’t pin it down, so write down what was said to you as closely as possible to verbatim. This will also help you remember each of the points you need to address. Then look at the feedback point by point and break it down into areas to improve, and a task-by-task action plan of ways in which to do so – writing all the time, making sure it is pinned down.

If appropriate, return to your critic with your action plan in hand and discuss with them whether what you have in mind accurately reflects the areas of improvement they flagged. If the person was insightful and bold enough to offer negative feedback, collaborating with them on a way forward might prove fruitful. On the other hand, it might be the case that this is something you need to work on yourself, with your heads of department, or even with an HR professional or counsellor. It really depends on the topic and nature of the feedback.

Read on: How to create a healthy feedback culture.

It can be a testing time, but don’t forget that your end-goal is improvement for yourself and your business. Make a short list of positive lessons that you’ve learned or are learning as a result of the feedback and check back on it when necessary. And don’t be afraid to examine your emotional response to the feedback. Ask yourself why you found it so provoking: Remember to process your feelings as well as your workflow.

Without feedback, you won’t grow as a professional or as a business. Receiving negative feedback may be the most valuable skill you can develop as a manager.

Photo by Dmitry Ratushny via Unsplash

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