07/29/2014 02:02 pm ET Updated Sep 28, 2014

No Excuses!


If there is one thing I know, it's how to respond to feedback. A pioneer in the use of customized, 360-degree feedback (confidential feedback from direct reports, peers and managers) as a leadership development tool, I've spent the last 30 years using feedback to help people change for the better. In 1993, I received my first national recognition for this work and was ranked by the Wall Street Journal as one of the top 10 executive educators in this extraordinary field, which has evolved to become known as "executive coaching." So, yes, I do know a little about which I speak.

Enough about me. Let's delve into this subject of responding to feedback. Don't spend hours and hours on it. You want your response to be positive, simple, focused, and fast.

  1. Positive: Thank your stakeholder for taking the time to provide you feedback. Acknowledge that you don't know who said what, but you are very grateful that everyone took the time to provide this helpful information.
  2. Simple: Mention to your stakeholder that there were many positive characteristics that were noted in the feedback and this is helpful and makes you feel good!
  3. Focused: Then say that there is a behavior that came up that you would like to change. You would like to apologize for this bad habit. You would like to work on being (fill in the blank, stubborn, opinionated, a poor listener).
  4. Fast: Ask your stakeholder for ideas about how you can improve in the future. Don't critique these ideas. Fight the urge to judge them either good or bad. Just listen to this person's ideas and say "Thank you."

Here is a quick explanation of apologizing, the magic move when you respond to feedback. Genuinely apologizing is one of the most magical healing, restorative gestures a person can make. Without the apology, there is no recognition or acknowledgement that mistakes have been made, there is no announcement that you intend to change, and most importantly, there is no emotional contract between you and the people you care about.

It doesn't matter how you've behaved, what you've done, or what has compelled you to apologize. Whatever has made you want to apologize, I'm all for it. Following is the apology instruction manual:

You say, "I'm sorry." You can add, "I'll try to do better in the future." This isn't necessary, but helps a lot, because when you let go of the past, it's always nice to hint at a brighter future. And then you say... nothing. Don't explain it. Don't complicate it. Don't qualify it. Any more words and you only risk saying something that will dilute it. As Ben Franklin said, "Never ruin an apology with an excuse."

Finally, when it comes to apologizing, the soundest advice I can give you is to get in and get out as quickly as possible. The sooner you get the apology over with, the sooner you can move onto telling the world you are going to change.

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Please view the Marshall Goldsmith Thinkers50 Video Blog. The next short video in the series Respond: Leadership Is a Contact Sport accompanies this article. I'll post these blogs once a week for the next 50 weeks. The series will incorporate learnings from my 38 years of experience with top executives, as well as material from my previous research, articles and books, including What Got You Here Won't Get You There, MOJO, Coaching for Leadership, and Succession: Are You Ready? The blogs will also include material from my exciting new research on engagement and my upcoming book Triggers (to be published by Crown in 2015).