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Leadership in Practice: Do You React or Respond to Negative Feedback?

Drop a bomb. Shoot the messenger. Rain on the parade. Delivering bad news or negative feedback is rarely a pleasant experience, mainly because most people are not sure how feedback will be received. Some employees fear their critiques will be ignored, not valued, or even worse, become cause for repercussions. But many senior leaders now recognize that removing a reactive posture when receiving difficult news enables greater dialogue and better outcomes. Prioritizing emotional intelligence (EQ), leaders can objectively consider a situation and listen with intent to learn from it. 

A growing perspective among successful executives is, “I will achieve better organizational results, have better relationships with employees and customers, and better manage feedback when I have high EQ.” Emphasis on emotional intelligence ensures that leaders meet business objectives while also fostering strong organizational culture, building relationships, and empowering people managers. Handling negative feedback well is a hallmark of sophisticated leadership skills. 

Often driven by an executive’s perception and priorities, organizational culture defines how feedback is given and received. Healthy organizational culture empowers employees to give and receive negative feedback productively.

Companies with a ‘gotcha culture,’ where mistakes are not seen as opportunities to learn and grow but instead as targets for punishment, are highly unlikely to provide any feedback at all. Additionally, companies with weak organizational culture may see negative feedback as a personal attack or professional jealousy. These types of cultures are reactive, following feedback with knee-jerk impulses.  

Reactionary executives typically don’t cultivate channels for feedback, so people are unsure how to give it and how it will impact their careers. This, in turn, creates a culture of insecurity and disempowerment. Executives that don’t handle bad news well blame others. They may resort to behavior that indicates they don’t trust their team, questioning other colleagues’ competence, and becoming argumentative. Executives with lower EQ may micromanage instead of relying on the managerial talents of the teams around them. Other mistakes may include overreacting, avoidance, and, worst of all, dismissing it entirely.

In the best-case scenario, executives with very high EQ listen. They ensure they are responsive, taking time to fully process feedback, examining their internal anxieties and self-monitoring their behaviors, and then thinking about strategically deploying organizational resources to address this feedback. 

Constructive negative feedback is timely, gives behaviorally specific examples, and provides an alternative way to respond to those problematic behaviors. Executives with high EQ use negative feedback as an opportunity for mindset growth and behavioral change.

Once an executive has reconciled with legitimate negative feedback, they must make actual changes. They should take tangible actions like modifying their behavior or the company’s trajectory to align impact and intent with organizational objectives and values.

When leaders get bad news and engage in high EQ activities to manage the situation, act on the feedback, and nurture relationships, positive ripple effects on culture and business performance will follow. Any executive that wants to learn how to handle negative feedback should ask the people around them how they’ve received bad news in the past and how they successfully handle it now.

Leaders need to become more self-aware about how their behavior affects others. Impact needs to match intent. Responsive leadership can range from moments of reflection to hiring an executive coach or conducting an organizational survey like the Hogan Assessment. Executives should cultivate the leadership skills that enable them to create a culture in which both positive and constructive feedback are welcome. Team members should feel comfortable giving feedback regularly, not just when something negative needs to be addressed. 

When leaders create an environment where negative feedback is heard and used to leverage change, people understand the importance of providing and growing from authentic feedback. The result fosters strong organizational culture and, ultimately, business success.

Richard A. Smith is the managing partner of Benton + Bradford Consulting. Richard is a sought-after speaker, coach and consultant to Fortune 500 companies. His areas of expertise include organizational culture, business strategy, DEI and leadership development.



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