A Black man and an Asian woman sat at a table wearing business attire and having a conversation over some papers on the table

All feedback is good. Really, it is! But it's what you do with it that counts. The defences we put up can hold us back, especially when they prevent us absorbing that feedback properly.

Being able to receive critique, feedback, and ideas that are not original to you is something I was well-trained to do during my Bachelor’s degree. Starting as a foundation year student at UCLan, scraping by enough to join the first year of a fashion degree, only to know I hated it within the first 2 months of attending, transferring back to the first year of a textiles degree and eventually graduating with a satisfactory 2:1 (but not until I took a year out between year 2 and year 3 of my course to have a child!).

Well, I thought I was well-trained at receiving critique but I had simply developed the skill of keeping my mouth shut when I felt myself getting defensive. Although listening is a large part of receiving feedback, keeping silent and gritting your teeth while you feel you are being criticised (unjustly or otherwise) does not inform development.

And so my well-honed ability to keep a straight-ish face while receiving feedback followed me along to my first professional job in the NHS, where I kept schtum even when I was screaming inside; understanding that it was unprofessional, unnecessary or hopeless defending yourself against someone you considered superior to you – Tutor, Manager, Husband.

I had envisioned myself to be like an ocean when it came to receiving feedback. No matter what was said, I absorbed it and so long as the surface appeared clear, it appeared that I productively received the feedback. In reality, much like the bleached coral of the ocean, I tarnished my innermost thoughts with the feedback received. The stories I held within me, about myself, were narrated by a voice of inferiority, harsh critique and focused squarely on consistent patterns of failings from my past.

“I felt that I had to do a lot more work to be worthy of the positive feedback that I received.”

These stories of negativity were embedded in my mind, and had matured incognito. They were powerful and gradually deformed the surface of my being. Add into the mix the perpetual presence of a toxic marriage in which I frequently felt reminded of my limited capability and lack of discipline – It was inevitable that my mind would develop a way of safeguarding my sanity.

By the time I became a community leader and CIC (Community Interest Company) founder, I felt ready to engage with truths. I had completed confidence-boosting courses, capacity-building programmes, mentorships, business development studies, Agile digital bootcamps and most importantly I was getting counselling.

Counselling was my ‘Ace in the Hole’. I felt bulletproof, how could I not be perfectly well? Most people of the African Diaspora that I knew would not engage in mental health services. I felt like a beacon of inspiration, a representative and was so very prideful that I was doing the hard work to care for myself the way I knew so many in my family and community would not at the time.

As a new founder of a Social Enterprise, I was impressive. I received positive reinforcement from mentors, colleagues, peers and community members. Although I felt self-aware enough not to let that go to my head and develop into an inflated ego, the comments I would get manifested as imposter syndrome. I felt that I had to do a lot more work to be worthy of the positive feedback that I received.

The pattern I can observe in hindsight is that I was terrible at receiving feedback as I simply held myself to an unattainable level of achievement. I expected such lofty things of myself that most things said to me – positive or negative – seldom penetrated my mind to be useful. My opinion of myself trumped almost anything that anyone could say to me and in turn my expectation of others was highly skewed.

This manifested in several ways before I finally reached a turning – or breaking – point.

  • I didn’t communicate the ending of professional and personal relationships – as I didn’t want confrontation since I wasn’t great at truly receiving or giving feedback.
  • I didn’t delegate work to other people when I needed to as I had skewed expectations of mine and their capacity – By misunderstanding my capacity and not communicating my expectations to others openly.
  • I trusted almost no-one to truly support me as I frequently didn’t follow the advice, critique or observation given – I understood that my continuing to struggle was as much to do with not putting into action the things I had been advised to do as much as it was to do with external pressure and my lack of experience with having overt power and authority.
  • I thought that I had to ‘fix’ myself before I could start doing what I knew I could / needed to do – This was the most damaging of all the ways that I was taking the feedback given to me.

Being skilled at developing projects, research, communicating vision, navigating cultures,  inspiring engagement and selling ideology was enough for me to feign an admirable jack-of-all-trades style level of competence. The toxicity of my way of working meant that I either took feedback as a form of unjust critique or took it as absolute gospel. This extreme way of thinking could also be arguably seen as symptomatic of my neurodivergence (don’t get me started on that conversation now) or severe depression but ultimately meant that feedback was seldom truly processed, reflected on or acted upon due to my poor self management.

Self Management is what I believe to be a pivotal point for leaders when receiving feedback. Specifically as a leader receiving feedback from someone you are in charge of managing, supporting or delegating work to. The power dynamic is such that a leader ultimately has a choice as to whether they receive and embed the feedback or critique given without significantly jeopardising the security of their role – this security is not two-way!

Without self management, no amount of self-awareness and kindness will allow for transformative conversations, resilience development or community building. Progress and evolution will be stalled by ego, subjectivity, fear and dejection.

The first time I received and truly processed feedback, I was consulting for an older, experienced female founder of the African Diaspora in Tech. I had an exploratory meeting as a service designer to support their organisation. In my excitement, enthusiasm and quite frankly, my inexperience (read: naivety), I spoke over the client and didn’t really listen to their desires for their organisation. I was being directional, giving orders, providing solutions – at least this was the feedback that I received.

“If you can’t truly receive critique, can’t apologise, can’t forgive, can’t trust and can’t hope: what is the purpose of your presence as a leader?”

While driving on a grey day, I received a phone call from her saying ‘we had to talk’. She calmly said to me that the experience didn’t fill her with comfort or confidence. She told me that the experience had her feeling pushed, pressured and she didn’t think that other clients would feel heard. I cried, not because what she said hurt but I was humbled to receive frank feedback from someone I respected deeply. It felt like she truly wanted me to do better, like she cared that I improved my way of working.

This experience transformed the way I received feedback. I understood that I could improve and that I could hear critique from a place of love. Because I had built up my self-awareness and understood that I had a deep desire to control situations. I realised that a big part of why I had challenges receiving feedback was my lack of trust in people. As I had developed a trusting relationship with this client, I was able to hear what was being said without malice. This led me to understand the value of trust when it came to the cycle of feedback.

As a leader, I am focused on creating a safe space where people feel free to provide me feedback and critique. I yearn and work to ensure that those around me feel free to support me as well as be supported by me. Reciprocity is vital when it comes to receiving feedback as a leader. I manifest this through frequent conversation, conscious honesty and responsible vulnerability.

It is not easy.

It is not easy to be responsible for so much, accountable to so many, supported by so few while straddling your humanity. But just because something isn’t easy doesn’t negate its necessity.

To see so many faux leaders upheld in delicately gathered spaces such as women-focused networks, hurts my heart, mind and spirit. I say faux leaders as they speak staunchly of things they have a superficial, overly-flexible and selective understanding of. Being human more than anything allows for difference, imperfection and inconsistency (read as: diversity, individuality and grace – if you need a sweet version).

Feedback and critique is how we navigate those most common traits of humanity. If you can’t truly receive critique, can’t apologise, can’t forgive, can’t trust and can’t hope: what is the purpose of your presence as a leader?

There are many researched and identified traits of being a leader by far more informed sources than myself. But I propose that without the ability to truly falter, fail further and recover as a leader – especially a feminist leader – one is simply replicating the macho style of unshakable (read: stubborn), allegedly unfailing leadership that has brought us wars, financial crisis, industrial slavery and continued oppression. If you can not revel in your humanity and receive feedback, how effective are you as a leader? Really?

Kindly republished from the original at LinkedIn.

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  • Ayisatu Emore

    Ayisatu is a founder of Idaraya Life CIC and a freelance researcher.


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