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Is Leadership Success Really Found in the Word "No"?

We often think "yes" is the key to achieving big goals. But, Elon Musk would disagree. When this polarizing CEO and entrepreneur considers the reasons for his success, he credits actively seeking out and carefully listening to negative feedback. Although sometimes painful, Elon doesn't avoid it but encourages anyone to tell him what they don't like. His real motivator is to learn how to make products and services awesome. One of the greatest gifts any leader can receive is the rare gift of being told what is critical to improvement. It is also one of the greatest gifts you can give others. Unfortunately, negative feedback is rare when stakes in the workplace are high. To achieve success and significance in life and work, leaders need to trade what is comfortable for what is uncomfortable. Here are eight tips for encouraging others to give you the critical feedback necessary to learn, grow, and achieve big goals.

Why Critical Feedback Matters

It's hard to get better when you don't it's needed. Evidence suggests that leaders who cannot accept negative feedback have a higher probability of failing. Also, seeking and listening to critical feedback presents an opportunity for leaders to demonstrate openness to change and value others.

The best leaders ask more frequently and more people for critical feedback. Evidence from a study spanning more than ten years and over 50,000 executive leaders revealed that leaders who ask for feedback are significantly more effective than those that don't.

Research has demonstrated that leaders scoring in the bottom 10% in willingness to ask for feedback ranked in the bottom quartile of leadership effectiveness. But, those leaders scoring in the top 10% of willingness to ask for feedback ranked in the top quartile of leadership effectiveness. The least effective leaders are the most unwilling to seek the truth.

Also, evidence suggests that the leader's degree of commitment to a goal moderates the strength and direction of the outcome from feedback. Negative feedback motivates committed leaders to make progress toward achieving their goals. However, the degree of commitment to a goal determines how likely leaders will persevere after receiving the feedback.

"You don't learn anything from success, but you learn a lot from your failures." Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX

How to Encourage Critical Feedback

  1. Begin with an open mind. You likely don't have as open of a mind about your big goals as you think. If you disagree with this statement, there is your proof. Start with an assumption that you likely don't know everything you need to know and that you have something to learn. Planting a seed of doubt can help you to become curious.

  2. Assume positive intent. Negative feedback can reflect a desire of others to help you improve. Start with a mental paradigm that feedback is an opportunity to build deeper relationships. Although positive intent may not always be the driving force for the feedback, you can occasionally get great critical feedback even from enemies.

  3. Actively listen. Receiving critical feedback is not the same as listening. Actively listening is your ability to hear and improve mutual understanding. When you actively listen, you pay attention, show interest, suspend judgment, reflect, clarify, summarize, and share to gain clarity and understanding. When you are practicing active listening, you are available to the other person. Verbal, nonverbal, and empathic listening are important skills for truly hearing negative feedback.

  4. Ask. The higher your position in the organization, the longer you have been working toward the goal, or the higher the stakes for you and the person giving the feedback, the less likely you will receive positive or negative feedback unless you ask directly. It is important to ask what they don't like, not what they do. Questions grounded in curiosity create awareness and leadership influence.

  5. Create safety. It is not enough to schedule a meeting or focus group, leaders need to be vulnerable. Knowledgeable well-meaning people often are reluctant to be wrong or offend the leader. You can create safety by demonstrating humility. If followers perceive you know everything, they are less likely to tell you what you need to hear. Create a learning environment where raising questions and concerns are celebrated. Let others know that failure is a natural part of innovation and promote failing small and learning fast.

  6. Consider readiness. Sometimes you or your team may not be emotionally able to give or receive critical feedback. Assess and as needed adjust the timing rather than trying to force a conversation that is not ready.

  7. Make it requested, not required. People giving the feedback should not feel it is required. Forced feedback is often not very helpful.

  8. Say thank you. Accept the feedback like a gift, even when the gift isn't what you were hoping to receive. At the moment, the best thing you can do is say thank you. Don't challenge or minimize critical feedback.

How to Embrace Discomfort from Negative Feedback

Encouraging negative feedback is in your reach, but you might have to learn to become more comfortable with the uncomfortable. Each of us has different thresholds for the discomfort that comes with negative feedback. You can make embracing the discomfort easier regardless of your natural comfort level by starting with those you trust. Also, when you ask for negative feedback:

  • acknowledge that all kinds of people have all sorts of opinions

  • stay curious

  • don't make critical feedback personal

  • identify the discomfort as a natural path to your success


When you lean into critical feedback in an uncertain and complex world, you can learn, grow, and achieve big goals. Leaders unable to accept negative feedback are proven to be more likely to fail.

Leaders can encourage negative feedback by having an open mind, assuming positive intent, actively listening, asking others, creating safety, considering readiness, making it voluntary, and saying thank you.

What is the real challenge for you to give and receive negative feedback?


Edmondson, A. C. (2018). The fearless organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.

Folkman, J. (2006). The power of feedback: 35 Principles for turning feedback from others into personal and professional change. Wiley.

Papasava, A. (2017). Embracing negative feedback for effective leadership. The Journal for Quality and Participation. 40(3), 20-22.

Zenger, J. & Folkman, J. (2013). Overcoming Feedback Phobia: Take the First Step. Harvard Business Review.


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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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