With Martin G. Moore

Episode #116

Receiving Feedback: Accept the gift graciously

We tend to talk a lot about how important it is for leaders to give their people feedback, but focus much less on how to receive feedback.

In this episode, we turn the tables a little. All great leaders were first great followers, and had to experience how life felt on the other side of the table. Listening and learning should never stop, no matter how high up you go.

We look at how human nature can get in the way of our ability to hear the feedback that’s given to us. We then examine the efficacy of formal feedback mechanisms, and I also give some practical tips for how to receive feedback graciously.


Get yours delivered straight to your inbox by filling out the form below 👇

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.


Episode #116 Receiving Feedback: Accept the gift graciously

We tend to talk a lot about how important it is for leaders to give their people feedback, but focus much less on how to receive feedback, so in this article I want to turn the tables a little. All great leaders were first great followers and had to experience how life felt on the other side of the table. But for leaders, listening and learning should never end.

In this article I’ll cover:

  • What our natural tendencies are when we’re confronted with feedback

  • Common formal feedback processes and how they play out and;

  • A few tips for how to respond graciously, not just in the moment


Let’s start with the feelings that feedback usually brings. Just think about the last time someone gave you some feedback. How did you feel? What was going through your head? A couple of reactions are pretty common. You’re likely to hear the negatives and gloss over the positives, and it’s most common for your mind to jump straight to justification. You’re likely going to feel a bit threatened, and when this happens, you won’t listen properly, as your mind is trying to put the words you’ve already heard into a context that either makes it less threatening or gives you reason to discount it altogether. If it’s really threatening, for example, it directly challenges your identity and ego, your brain may shut down completely, and the only part of you left in that room will be your physical body. I don’t know what the research says, but after thousands of conversations I can confidently say that this is the most common initial reaction.

It’s extremely rare to find someone who can listen, absorb the feedback, calibrate it into their self perception, and make positive changes based on that. Most would really prefer to explain it away, pay it lip service, and go back to business as usual. I’m pretty comfortable giving feedback these days, and I have been for about 20 years. I got to the point where I didn’t need to think about myself at all, because I’d worked hard on gaining both the confidence and the competence in the feedback skill. Now, the beauty of this is that it freed me up to observe hundreds of people in this situation extremely carefully.

I can tell instantaneously now the extent to which someone is engaged, whether they’re absorbing the feedback or whether they’re just rationalising it. So here’s just a couple of examples of some of the things I’ve seen.

Example 1

There was a senior guy in a company that I worked at who was two layers below me structurally, and he’d been really struggling to get the outcomes required of his role. Not only had I explained the shortfall in great detail to his boss, who reported directly to me, but I also had a couple of sessions with him as his manager once removed to spell out the outcomes I was looking for in precise and vivid detail.

Now, I’m not a bad communicator, so I’m pretty sure the messages weren’t watered down, they weren’t obfuscated and they weren’t in any way ambiguous. I gave him feedback on more than one occasion that he was not delivering results in the most fundamental part of his portfolio. I told him exactly what he needed to achieve and gave him the freedom to work out how to do it.

I even drew a picture, literally drew a picture, of what the outcome had to look like in the end. Now, as it turned out over time, this guy was apparently incapable of delivering the essential outcomes because in my view, he couldn’t lift himself from the nitty gritty detail of his work in order to think and act in a more contextual way that lifted his gaze up a level or two. He was a really good person and a hard worker, but simply didn’t have the capability to do the role at the level he was paid to do it. Now as it happens, I was looking for a new Chief Information Officer at the time, and he approached me to ask if he should apply for the role. I’ve got to tell you, I was utterly dumbfounded. I obviously can’t speak for the conversations he’d had with his boss, but I know that in the conversations I’d held with him, it was clear that I saw his performance as being substandard. Yet despite this, he genuinely thought he was a strong candidate for the CIO role, which was a level above the role that he wasn’t able to perform in. He had clearly learned nothing from the feedback I’d given him, if he thought that he was remotely close to promotion, because at the same time, unbeknownst to him, I was pushing his boss to replace him with someone who could do his lower level job properly.

Example 2

Many years ago I hired a woman I knew to run a critical portfolio. I’d worked with her before, in a slightly different capacity. Her role was a layer below the one I’d hired her for this time, but she was one of my favourite leaders. I’ve got to tell you, her values were exceptional. Her work ethic was uncompromising. She knew how to build team morale and her troubleshooting capability was second to none.

Unfortunately, the role I put her into was a little beyond her capability – my bad, right? I worked with her for several months and based upon my long standing relationship and loyalty to her, probably longer than I normally would, I offered her support in whatever form she thought she might need it. A coach, some formal education, whatever it was, but she wouldn’t believe me when I said that she needed to lift, and that if she didn’t, it might prove to be fatal.

She said to me, in one meeting, and I quote, “This is me, and if that’s not good enough for you, then so be it.” Now granted she was probably trying to push my loyalty button, which although you might find this surprising, is probably a little overdeveloped in me, but I’m not sure to this day, what drove her obstinance. Did she simply not agree with my feedback? Did she intuitively know that reaching the bar I was setting was probably a bridge too far for her? Or did you just expect me to value her loyalty and past history above her inability to perform at this new level?

Example 3

The final example is someone who received the feedback the way I would ideally have liked him to. This was an executive who reported to me many years ago, who was exhibiting a bad habit.

He was arrogant and he was disrespectful to our internal customers on a difficult technology project he was overseeing. Now I watched this for a while, then I decided I had enough data points to express to him really clearly what the problem was. When I told him, he was for sure, a little taken aback. He clearly didn’t realise that this was how he was coming across. So he asked me loads of questions about specifics of the situations I’d witnessed. He told me he’d go away and have a think about it. What happened next blew me away.

First off, he came to me the following week with some great reflections: “Here are the situations that this tends to come out in me. Here’s why it manifests the way it does. Here’s what’s going through my head when I’m experiencing it.” But he said, “Don’t worry. I have a plan for getting on top of this and I’m going to need your help. So will you please pull me up when you see me falling back into my old bad habits?

Then, he went even further. He met with the key customer reps to apologise for his previous behaviour and to ask for their forbearance while he reset the relationship and worked on changing his approach. He went on to forge extremely strong bonds with these customers, and the project was an unequivocal success. Now, what was so different about this guy? Absolutely nothing. He simply made a choice to listen, to respond and to work at self improvement. He demonstrated trust in my judgement, and he showed the humility of someone who knew that, like all of us, he wasn’t perfect. He believed in his own ability to change and he was driven to excel. You don’t see this very often, but when you do, it makes the whole leadership caper very worth while.


There are two common formal feedback mechanisms we’re subject to. The first is the feedback that comes as part of the performance review cycle. Now because this feedback isn’t necessarily given willingly and spontaneously, but as part of a mandated process, just be careful how much stock you put in it. Weak leaders won’t be open and they won’t tell you the truth. They’ll want to avoid their own fear and discomfort, rather than focusing on their duty of care to you, and they do you an incredible disservice by not giving you genuine feed back.

To help you get your head around stepping up and giving real feedback, I recommend listening to Episode #6 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast, The Psychology of Feedback, and Episode #96 Performance Reviews.

These two episodes should help you to ensure that you don’t make the same mistakes as your weak bosses. But also, you can use them as a basis for reading the signals in the feedback you’re being given. Is your boss genuine? Does she care enough to set a high standard and tell you how to meet it, or is she a conflict diverse human going through the motions because that’s how the annual bonuses are assessed.

I’ve seen countless people, who have really dire performance or behavioural issues, yet when we look at their HR records, it says they’ve performed really well year after year. Why? Because previous bosses have decided to take the path of least resistance. It’s so much easier just to say, “Everything’s okay, you’re doing a great job,” than it is to risk a conflict situation.

What’s sad, is that when a strong leader finally has the courage to give feedback, the individual is basically incredulous. “Why should I believe you? My last 10 bosses told me I’m doing a great job!” Wait for it, “It’s not me, it’s you”. It’s incredible the number of people I’ve given feedback to who are relatively old, but no one has ever had the backbone to tell them about an obvious issue they have. It would have only taken one strong leader to give them the opportunity to completely change the trajectory of their careers, and for many of them, the trajectory of their whole lives. If your boss is saying all good, nothing to see here, ask some questions that will help you to work out how much weight to put on their feedback.

The second common formal mechanism is 360 degree feedback. These tools are very common these days, so I’d be surprised if most leaders haven’t been exposed to them in some form. Basically, as the name suggests, 360 degree feedback is given from people all around you, who work with you in different capacities. Your boss, your team, your peers, sometimes customers and suppliers. There would normally be somewhere between six and twelve respondents. Basically, each person answers an online questionnaire to rate your behaviour in a bunch of key areas so that you can form a picture of your behavioural profile, and depending on the tool, the impact you have as a leader on the people around you.

But here’s the thing, of the hundreds of people who I’ve spoken to about their 360 degree profiles, almost to a person, they want to rationalise. They get into the data and scrutinise any negative perceptions, and they look for reasons why they’ve had negative scores. So they’ll often say things like, “Yeah, I know why I got a bad score there. That’s because Jenny and I had an argument the week the survey was released, and so she’s marked me down on my listening skills.” No, no, that’s not what you should do. When you get your 360 degree feedback report, resist the temptation to rationalise away any negative indicators. You shouldn’t fall into a deep depression, but, you want to critically ask yourself if there’s anything to the feedback. If there is, don’t try to boil the ocean, that’s overwhelming. You just want to pick one or two things that you’re going to work on to change.

Years ago, I did a 360 degree survey using the Human Synergistics LSI tool. Of all the things that caught my eye, there was one in particular that surprised me. I was actually quite perfectionistic, and this was constraining my capacity to achieve. Ring a bell? Excellence over perfection. So I set about working out how to become less perfectionistic and focus more on achievement. As I retested myself over the years, it became very obvious that I have completely shifted my focus from having everything just so, to focusing on getting sh!t done to a high quality and standard. And in case you haven’t worked it out yet, these are two completely different things. So don’t ever discard feedback through these formal mechanisms, but make sure you understand the context in which the feedback is given and ask yourself the most important question. What can I take from this to help me improve? If you’re not asking that, the opportunities to grow will just be lost on you, and you may wonder why your career isn’t rocketing forward the way you might’ve imagined.


Let’s assume for a moment that your boss doesn’t hang on my every word, and hasn’t worked out how to give direct feedback constructively yet. So when receiving feedback, swing around to the other side of the table and work out how much stock you should put in it. Here are a few rules of thumb to work out the efficacy of any feedback you receive.

Number One 

If anyone is prepared to give you tough feedback, accept it graciously. Feedback truly is a gift.

It gives you a rare opportunity to see things you can’t see for yourself, and it’s the basis for reflection, self-awareness and improvement. If you have the opportunity, don’t let it pass you by, because these opportunities come too rarely.

Number Two

If you’re getting regular feedback, not just as part of the formal cycle, then listen to that really carefully. Because it probably means your boss is in the habit of giving regular feedback. She doesn’t avoid it and she’s more likely to be calling it the way she sees it.

Number Three

If feedback from someone is always positive, make sure you question it, and I mean literally question it. You need to explicitly ask questions like “If there was one thing I could do to improve, what would it be?” Force them to draw out some feedback for you that’s useful.

Number Four

If the feedback is always vague, make sure you question that as well. A boss saying to you, “Great job, Marty.” That means nothing. But saying, “Hey, it was great the way you handled that presentation. Your thoughts were really cohesive and you made a very complex issue simple enough for me to easily understand.” Now that’s real feedback because it’s specific and it’s targeted and it’s timely.


You can download this in a free PDF at www.yourceomentor.com/episode116.

When you’re being given feedback by your boss, listen intently.

Ask clarifying questions. If your boss is taking the time and effort to give you feedback, make sure you understand specifically what they’re trying to tell you. And make sure you give them the opportunity to explain in multiple ways, so that you know it’s been well-considered feedback and not just a random thought bubble.

Ask for examples. There’s no better way to clarify than to get examples that demonstrate the issue that your boss is raising. If your boss is any good, the feedback will come pretty close to an event that illustrates their points, so it’s easy to make sense of it and to find it tangible.

Remember, feedback doesn’t end when you walk out of the meeting room, that’s where it starts. Beyond the meeting, ask people close to you if there’s any truth to what you’ve been told. I once asked my wife if I had the occasional tendency to be stubborn and she pissed herself laughing. Oh ok, I get it. I should listen to that bit then, right?

The other thing you can do is develop a plan for addressing the feedback. Don’t just let it go through to the keeper, if it’s worth working on. Put together a genuine plan and hold yourself accountable for improving, and keep your boss in the loop. You’re much more likely to get more feedback if your boss knows you’ll take it seriously and do something about it. They’ve certainly been many occasions in the past, where I felt as though I was completely wasting my time and energy on an individual who didn’t want to hear it.

Ask for assistance to change. You may need some help. You may need some personal development or some coaching. You may just need a commitment from a trusted advisor to keep you honest. If you are receiving formal feedback, retest to see if there’s any improvement over time, like a 360 degree instrument. If you’re working on something, make sure you have an opportunity to measure the results. It’s both motivating and it’s reaffirming. You don’t need to prove anything to anyone else. Remember, it’s not a test, but it proves to you, that you have it in you to grow, to change and to become better over time.

And finally, you need to be your own best source of feedback. Boards in particular have very limited visibility of how a CEO and management team performs and behaves on a daily basis, so you need to demonstrate that you are monitoring yourself and the team. Be open about the issues that are arising with your people and be open about the things that you’re trying to improve upon, both individually and collectively. Make sure they know it’s not just for “sh!ts and giggles”, but your underlying driver is always geared towards performance improvement.

Being able to receive feedback is a leadership skill like any other. You need to work out what’s just fluff and bubble coming from a weak leader and what’s real feedback. Ultimately, you’re looking to gain insight into the things that you can’t see that will help you to be better. You don’t need to be perfect, you just need to be improving all the time.

Make sure that trend of improvement trajectory is positive, because like most things in life, trend is your friend.


  • Explore other podcast episodes – Here

  • Take our FREE Level Up Leadership Masterclass – Start now

  • Leadership Beyond the Theory- Learn More


Here’s how you can make a difference:

  • Subscribe to the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast

  • Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts

  • Repost this episode to your social media

  • Share your favourite episodes with your leadership network

  • Tag us in your next post and use the hashtag #nobsleadership