Good Leaders Value Criticisms from Subordinates

By | April 27, 2020

[April 27, 2020]  I’ve been around performance reviews long enough to understand they have value.  Written by someone who outranks the person rated, the evaluation has both good and bad points.  But, some evaluations are truly valuable.  Those criticisms from subordinates will frequently contain the starkest surprises and bluntness.

As such, feedback from subordinates can knock a leader off their high perch and drop them into the sea of reality. A few lucky leaders have a subordinate that works closely with them, giving brutal feedback in private.   Others, like me, asked for input from anyone willing to provide it.  There was only one requirement, and that was the feedback had to be as truthful as possible and should spare no courtesy.

“There is only one way to avoid criticism; do nothing and be nothing.” – Aristotle

As expected, I was often surprised by the input my soldiers would give to me.1,2  A strength that I prided myself on throughout my military career was “education.”  I insisted on providing all those working for me with quality education, both formal and informal.  It was challenging to have so many people out in schools, but the short-term sacrifice was worth it.

Two years after working in one unit, I was astounded that my latest evaluation by subordinates showed education as a weakness.  How could that be with all the emphasis I placed on it?  I had made sure schools were always available, the money was there to fund my soldiers to attend, and I rewarded those who went to school.  I envisioned myself as the paragon of education in my unit.  How could it be a weakness?

After speaking with my junior NCOs, I found that they saw my emphasis on education overall as excellent, but I had failed on another front.  I had not given my soldiers specific guidance on what schools were best and the ideal time to attend.  They also worried that being away from the unit put them at a disadvantage and that I was not there to protect them from those disadvantages.

Stunned, I changed the way I saw education in the Army and switched to a more decentralized system of encouraging and rewarding the education of subordinates.  My NCOs had given me something invaluable.  Something I saw as a strength was made more robust and more valuable.3

If it were not for me insisting upon criticism from subordinates, I would have never known about this weakness and would not have taken corrective action.  The lesson is that no matter what you believe to be your most important strength, it can be improved as long as the leader is willing to value criticism from subordinates.

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  1. A good habit for leaders is to not just accept feedback but to accept it politely. See an older article I wrote about this: https://www.theleadermaker.com/good-habits-17-politely-accept-feedback/
  2. There are also other effective ways to encourage feedback. A few are addressed here: https://www.theleadermaker.com/how-to-get-good-feedback/

Here is a good article at Inc. that addresses “How to Criticize Employees: 6 Rules.”  While this article focuses on “employees” it is just as relevant to employees criticizing their boss: https://www.inc.com/geoffrey-james/how-to-criticize-employees-6-rules.html

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

20 thoughts on “Good Leaders Value Criticisms from Subordinates

  1. Len Jakosky

    If you can’t take the heat, then get out of the kitchen. Leadership is not easy. It’s complex and hurts a lot when you fail. But a good leader gets right back up and keeps on going. That is why sports is so important, it shows us how to get ‘back in the game.’

    1. Otto Z. Zuckermann

      Well said, Len. I too believe the same thing. Weak leaders cause enormous problems and if they are unwilling to accept criticism for their job, then they need to either work to improve or get out.

  2. Dennis Mathes

    This article addresses an issue that I’ve discussed with my friends and coworkers for years. Too many leaders dismiss any comments from those they lead. That kind of behavior subjects us to missing out on a lot of good info. What we should be doing is putting together the web of ideas into a personal-leader philosophy and others can actually help us.

  3. old warrior

    Mature, experienced leaders are more likely to accept input in any form from any one. They are also more able to sort out the worthless input. I would suggest that those same experienced leaders will be respectful and not tell those subordinates with worthless criticism to shove it up their butt.

    1. Ed Berkmeister

      Good point, old warrior. Thanks for being on top of this. Of course, I will bring up the fact that most of our discussion has a Western nation bias. In that the power difference between leaders and workers is small here but great in Asia.

      1. Jonnie the Bart

        Right! That is why I also keep coming back to this website by Gen. Satterfield.

  4. Max Foster

    The value of any kind of input – in the form of criticism or negative screaming and shouting – has some value. I will agree with your article on this. However, the difficult part is the leader who receives it is human and thus often reluctant to use this info. That is just the way human beings are wired. Just ask a psychologist. For mentally resilient leaders, this is less of a problem. They can quickly determine if the input (ie criticism) is just garbage like an insult or is something valuable to be used by them. I find that most of the input given is valuable but repetitive.

    1. Newbie Yunger

      Yes, like the type of shoes you wear. What difference does it make. Oh, if you are in the military, the footwear will be determined by the military so it does matter there.

    2. Joe Omerrod

      Excellent comment, Max. As usual, you’ve made an important point. Yes, sometimes subordinates do give good advice. But sometimes they are just plain off the mark and their input (in the form of criticisms or not) is not useful at all. This is my experience anyway.

      1. Shawn C. Stolarz

        But as we encourage “criticism”, we will get more. Then it comes to the point of summarizing and analyzing what they have to say. Maybe we can get something out of it. The fact that leaders ask for input is a sign of respect itself.

  5. JT Patterson

    Thanks Gen. Satterfield for a very appropriate and often misunderstood idea. Criticism is extremely valuable but our own egos often push those thoughts away. Well done! Oh, when will you be having more guest bloggers on? I like Mr. Kennedy III and Sadako Red the most.

    1. Douglas R. Satterfield Post author

      I will have one of our guest bloggers on very soon. I’ve been working with “Red” for a couple of days to have him write again. Thanks for the note, JT.

      1. Jerome Smith

        Thank you. Don’t get us wrong, we love to read your blog but those guys are particularly interesting. They have not one PC bone in their body. Their style is open, direct, and hard-hitting. They take on the sacred cows of society and hammer home their points with a jack hammer.

  6. Jane Fillmore

    Aristotle’s quote is just the right one for your blog today, Gen. Satterfield. For some reason we all hate criticism but if we are good leaders we also know that it is necessary.

    1. Lynn Pitts

      Best read Aristotle if you want to understand people better, as well as yourself and future leadership.

  7. Army Captain

    Well said, by the way, and spot on. Any leader who is worth their salt will value all criticisms. That doesn’t mean we have to act on them but if there is a preponderance of criticisms in a certain area, then we should take a close look at them and thus, value them.

    1. Greg Heyman

      Right. Our input that comes just from our bosses has a bit of distortion in the criticism (but should be carefully considered) yet that input from subordinates also has tremendous value. That is unless it just comes from a person who whines all the time.

    2. Doc Blackshear

      Good comment, Army Capt. We’ve all been there when a person working for us says we are doing something wrong or inefficient or ineffective. I’ll bet most of us just ignored that person. Maybe that person actually has something useful to say and we ignored it. Too bad for us and it shows disrespect for the subordinate.

      1. Dale Paul Fox

        Hi Doc. Glad to see you back in the saddle. Hope all has been well with you and the family during this pandemic.

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