Kristin Robertson

December 1, 2015

How to Get Bad News from Your Team


A CEO once told me, “I don’t want my team just blowing sunshine at me all the time!” He wanted people to bring him the good, the bad, and the ugly in a timely fashion, so he could do something about it. Trouble is, he had a way of demeaning and shutting down the negative news he received from his team by ignoring the messenger or by physically showing that the message was unimportant. I remember one time when he flung aside a report I had just given him and changed the subject.  

 Surrounding oneself with only yes-men or yes-women can ruin a business. The demise of Merrill Lynch during the recent great recession is an example of a CEO who fired or refused to talk to executives in the firm who disagreed with his strategy. Merrill was acquired by Bank of America in 2008, in a shotgun marriage that ended a century-long existence of a once-venerated brokerage firm.

How to Get Real Feedback You Need to Hear

Here are six ways you can encourage feedback and get bad news from your team:

  1. Admit your mistakes.  Nothing is better than admitting your own mistakes to create an open and honest culture in your company.

    Tom Niesen, CEO of Acuity Systems, admits when he blows something during a sales call. He told me, “I’ll email the whole company, admit that this and that went wrong, and I’ll ask for their advice. It’s the same thing I do to them when they ask to debrief something with me. I’ll ask, ‘How do you think I handled this situation?’  Depending on what the feedback is, I’ll either agree or I’ll say, I don’t know.”  

  1. Actively seek feedback. Ask open and honest questions in meetings, then listen more than you talk. Scott Stegner, formerly SVP of Schneider Electric, would say, “I’d like to hear both pros and cons to this idea. You won’t hurt my feelings if you have something bad to say.”

    And mean it. Actively listen to each brave soul, acknowledging the contribution. Your position as boss connotes power over others, causing your team to be cautious of making you mad. So, encourage your team to speak up.

  1. Control your emotions when receiving feedback. Be hyper-aware of your body language and facial expressions when you receive feedback. Your team knows “that look” when you’re exasperated, so keep a poker face.

    Once, when I was vice president of a software company, I received some feedback and telegraphed my exasperation on my face. My employee Patti immediately said, “Don’t give me that face, Kristin. I know you’re about to shut me down!” Ever after, I learned to control my facial expressions when receiving news. Remember, killing the messenger by getting angry, cynical, or mocking will ensure that person will never give you honest feedback again. Nor will anyone else who observed the encounter.  

  1. Thank people for feedback. I observed Carol Roehrig, CEO of BKM Total Office of Texas, recently say to her whole team, “The coaches that made the biggest difference in our lives are the ones who correct us. If you’re associated with a complaint, thank the customer because it will help us get better.”

    View the feedback from your team like you would complaints from your clients – as an opportunity to improve. Sincerely express gratitude for opinions and observations you receive from your team. You can say, “Thank you for that suggestion. I really appreciate your courage in speaking up.” Keep an open mind and consider, if only for a moment, the merit of what is offered. Then, calmly explain your decision to either incorporate the feedback or deny it. Either way, it will encourage the person to offer feedback in the future.

  1. Spend time with the troops. Back in the ‘80s, Tom Peters advocated the use of MBWA or Management By Wandering Around. This is still a good practice. Executives who spend time walking around and talking to people who don’t report directly to them always learn something interesting. In contrast to sitting behind closed doors in an office or conference room, face time with the troops opens up communication, shows your vulnerability, and makes you real to the people who do the work. People are more apt to provide feedback to someone who appears emotionally and physically accessible.

  2. Hire an executive coach. One of the jobs of an executive coach is to help you seek feedback and learn more about yourself – your personality, your strengths and weaknesses, your mental models, and habitual emotional reactions. A coach will help you understand how and why others react to you and you to them. If you think that your team is “blowing you sunshine” all the time, consider hiring a coach. It’s probably time to look at yourself with the help of a trusted advisor.

Want to learn more about building a Small Giants culture? Download our eBook for strategies and best practices! 

About Kristin Robertson

Kristin Robertson, President of Brio Leadership, is an expert on company culture transformation, an executive coach, and strategic meeting facilitator who focuses on small and mid-sized businesses. Results of her work include reduced operational costs, employee development, productive teams and an effective organizational culture. She is conducting research for an upcoming book with a working title of “Cookbook for Great Small Company Cultures”. She has seen first-hand what works and what doesn’t and is excited about sharing her knowledge with you. Her passion is increase the number of employees who are excited to go to work on Monday mornings