Say it’s the start of a new semester or the end of the school year, and you’ve asked your staff to complete an anonymous survey to gather feedback about your leadership. You’ve reviewed the feedback, quantitative and qualitative, and you receive a mix of praise and extremely harsh responses. In particular, the qualitative data cut deep.
A few years ago, as a building principal, I received negative feedback on an end-of-the-year survey. I then spent the entire summer reviewing, questioning, stewing, and reflecting. I felt inadequate and wondered if all my staff agreed with the criticism.
I was ashamed and embarrassed that the survey results went out to all my fellow district and building leaders. But instead of judging me harshly for the negative comments, my supervisors reminded me that all feedback is a gift you can use to strengthen your leadership, influence, and relationships with others for the good of your school or district. How you receive that gift is up to you.
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Now, six years later, I don’t even remember the details of the initial negative feedback, but I do remember how my response to it strengthened me as a leader. Here are the steps I would encourage others to follow, when figuring out how to properly receive a similar opportunity to grow:
1. Get coached up.
I shared the results with someone who would tell me the truth. That person was my leadership coach, who I had hired earlier in the school year to work with my building leadership team and our athletic coaches. We worked well with him, and I trusted his objectivity. He had our best interests at heart, and he took leadership seriously. He analyzed the survey data and returned with some reflective questions.
Together, we identified three common themes from the feedback and listed examples of what staff members shared. What we didn’t do was get defensive or question the validity of the comments. The experiences my staff members shared were real, and identifying the themes gave me a road map to creating new interactions and experiences.
2. Acknowledge staff feedback in person.
Once we identified our themes, I prepared a presentation slide deck to guide my thoughts during our opening-day staff meeting. It might have been easier to send an email, but email can only convey information, while in-person communication goes both ways. The best way to communicate with your staff, especially when dealing with negative feedback, is to do it face-to-face. There’s something to be said about seeing their faces, responding to their body language, and allowing them to read your body language back. None of that can be captured in an email.
As I shared each theme, I acknowledged their perspectives, thanked them for their honesty, and sincerely apologized for my shortcomings. I didn’t defend myself or explain away their survey responses. I reiterated the importance of establishing psychological safety, which comes from building trusting relationships. It was vital for me to acknowledge how I was still working to build that trust.
Even when only a small percentage of the staff raises concerns, it is important to remember that many others feel the same way but didn’t take the time to share it on the survey.
3. Share your plan—and follow through on it.
I acknowledged their feedback and developed a draft plan for each common theme from the survey data. I aligned my steps to our district strategic plan and asked for their input. I also took as much time as possible to answer their questions. I included monthly informal offsite check-in meetings with each department, which we called “Appy Hour.” We went to a local restaurant after school to talk over appetizers. I paid for the appetizers to show gratitude for their time and willingness to attend. Great conversation happens when there’s food involved! These low-stress get-togethers allowed me to check the pulse of the staff, answer questions, and listen to areas of concern.
Immediately following my back-to-school staff meeting, several teachers thanked me for being vulnerable, embracing the feedback, and presenting actionable steps to move us forward. They appreciated being heard and taken seriously. As a result of the plan, I became more intentional about being visible and more decisive. I communicated more clearly and created informal listening sessions with each department throughout the year. We grew as a staff, and I grew as a leader.
A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2023 edition of Education Week as How to Handle Negative Feedback: A Guide for Principals