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Courageous Leadership: Tools to Courageously Give and Receive Feedback

06/18/2015 10:29 am ET | Updated Jun 17, 2016

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Courage: To act on our values with an open heart in the face of fear.

Leadership: Is based on behavior, not position. The ability to model and inspire the best in others and positively impact group dynamics, organizational culture.

"Early in my career, I used to memorize feedback before giving it to research analysts because I knew the importance of it," recalls Sallie Krawcheck, the CEO of Elevate, a global professional women's network dedicated to the economic engagement of women. "And I remember the exact words of feedback I've received."

Courageously and consistently giving and receiving feedback is vital for the growth and success of an organization (and individuals!). As the research of Carl Larson, Ph.D., author of When Teams Work Best, shows, a primary predictor of a work team's success is their ability to have candid conversations.

One of Sallie's early experiences illustrates this. As a young research analyst, Sallie had to present to the entire sales force on a daily 7 AM call. "After one of the calls, a manager came to me and mentioned, 'When you're finishing sentences, your voice tilts up. It sounds young and unsure, unconfident.'"

"It was quick, simple, useful feedback," Sallie noted. "Initially, I may have cringed or thought to be embarrassed, but I realized in the moment, and fully believe now, that all feedback is a gift, even if it's not delivered well."

Case in point: "After my first client meeting with a female salesperson, I heard that she gave me negative feedback behind my back. She said that I didn't know my numbers, I had to shuffle through papers to find them. It was hurtful and embarrassing, but it was feedback and she wasn't wrong. It didn't happen again. It was a huge gift. If she'd said nothing, I wouldn't be as successful today."

Two key skills for building the courage to accept and offer feedback are the abilities to pause when hit with cortisol and adrenaline under stress, and to challenge our "automatic thoughts" and focus on our values. Fortunately for Sallie, she may have cringed, but she didn't overtly react, and she kept her eye on the larger goal of learning and growing from the experience.

It's common for many of us to take challenging critiques personally, to get defensive, feel ashamed, and shut down. But when we do, we miss the chance to learn and grow individually and collectively. (These skills are especially important in courageous conversations supporting diversity and inclusion efforts, the topic of our next blog.)

So, how can you welcome feedback as an opportunity to grow, and share this invitation with others?

Create Your "Pause Button"

Pushing your mental "pause button" helps you slow down reactions, and choose a more helpful, adaptive response. The quickest way to decelerate stress reactions and quiet the emotional centers in the brain is often to focus on breathing. Double the length of your exhale to trigger your parasympathetic nervous system, which quiets your stress response. Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, also recommends, "Think about people who like or love you, and by remembering some of the many ways you do good and are good." Thinking of things you're grateful for in the moment has also been shown to calm our stress response.

Challenge Negative Self Talk

"Automatic thoughts" are the background chatter every one of us has going in our heads, constantly. Under stress, these automatic thoughts tend to become negative and exaggerated, making it difficult for us to act with courage. With training and practice, you can challenge the automatic thoughts that our brains naturally secrete in stressful situations (the evolutionary purpose was to get us out of harm's way as quickly as possible). Ask yourself, "What's the likelihood this (automatic thought) is true? What physical evidence do I have that it's true? What's the worst that can happen?" The key question is tied to our values, "If the worst happens, is it still worth it to me to take action according to my values?" Connecting to your values can inspire your courage and give you strength to take wise, values-based action in stressful situations. The more you challenge your automatic thoughts, the less you habitually believe and act on them.

Feedback in the Workplace

Sallie is highly aware of the challenges of giving and receiving feedback, and the different dynamics for different people: "I think men are better at giving feedback to men, women get much less to our detriment." If women and other groups don't receive the kind of honest feedback throughout their careers, it may hinder their ability to develop.

Organizations that make regular feedback part of the culture, and frame it as vital to learning and growth, provide the skills to do so effectively and create courageous cultures where information flows and relationship strengthen. Rather than "going along to get along" or being "nice" (not voicing challenging ideas or feedback) sharing thoughtful, fair, and candid feedback amongst everyone in an organization takes skillful courage, and ongoing practice.

Sallie, still finds encouraging and acknowledging courageous conversations key to her success. "I know it's really important for me as the leader to make it safe for people to deliver bad news or challenging feedback," Sallie says. "I encourage people to take risks and I'm very open about my failures. There's a method to my madness, and it's a blessing that I got to fail in public. If we talk about it and learn from it, it's never a failure. If just one person learns from it, it's a success."

Value of Courageous Feedback

Courageous conversations are hard. It's much easier to just blow people off, and not take the risk, with, "It's not my problem," or, "It's not my company." The more people learn that a courageous culture is everyone's responsibility, the more engaged and invested people will be.

But organizations also need to listen, and learn. One of the primary predictors of burnout is values contradiction. So don't ask people to be courageous if the organization won't back them, or acts in ways that conflict with stated values.

Take a cue from Sallie Krawcheck: If someone has a courageous conversation with you, thank her or him. And give yourself credit when you have one with someone else. Each conversation builds your courageous muscle, which can improve all of your most important relationships, as well as the integrity and effectiveness of your organization.

Our next two columns will focus on diversity and inclusion efforts: First, the skills to have successful courageous conversations supporting D&I initiatives, and how to recognize and positively affect the often-invisible social and systemic influences that affect behavior.

Please share any of your own examples or stories of others' courageous actions using the hashtag: #thecourage2lead.