I enjoyed playing golf in earlier years and attempted to swing the irons at least twice a month. On one such occasion, I played at a club in a mining area of South Africa, a picturesque layout with long fairways, surrounded by tall trees and occasionally bordered by large lakes. After completing about a third of the game, alongside one of the fairways, I came across a lake with an island in its centre. Neatly mounted on a sturdy pole on the island perched a “suggestion box”, with printed words underneath also mounted on the pole – “Your suggestions – if you dare”! The message was clear – we don’t want your suggestions. You are welcome to swim out to the island to place your suggestions in the box, but there is a low probability of us swimming out to the island to retrieve them. They are not going to get read!

I understand that the suggestion box placed on an island was probably a joke, but many managers treat suggestions and feedback from their staff in a similar way. They make it difficult for staff to offer suggestions and have an aversion to receiving feedback from those that report in to them. There seems to be a fear of being told that you can improve as a leader and that you have flaws. Many managers thus keep their employees at some distance and don’t open the door for constructive feedback in their relationships with staff.

Of course, all leaders want to hear how wonderful they are and how well they lead. Hearing that one is not perfect or that one’s leadership style can do with some improvement always hurts and is unsettling to say the least. Perhaps the following guidelines may assist the leader when receiving feedback:

  • Don’t over-react to the initial “sting” of receiving negative feedback – it will fade. When emotional, it is difficult to process information, so allow the emotion to pass. Give yourself space for this to take place.
  • Keep your ego out – your ego can act as an army or security force designed to protect you and your position and as such, may prevent you from hearing potential improvement information.
  • Be open to feedback, but wise in its interpretation – not all feedback will be constructive or even accurate, so sift through what you hear, perhaps taking note of helpful information from more experienced and knowledgeable people.
  • Create the environment where feedback can be offered in a constructive fashion – set the rules for the way that feedback should be delivered by your staff. Emotional outbursts and finger-pointing are never helpful forms.

Although “feedback is the breakfast of champions”, having feedback delivered well and with no malice makes it palatable and digestible. Feedback, offered constructively, is fertilizer for leadership growth.