Can you imagine if you didn’t have access to a mirror? Those who are not so concerned with their appearance might be thinking, “That might not be so bad!” But consider how you might feel if you were a model of some kind and your livelihood depended on making sure your appearance was just so. If you needed to make sure that your hair, clothing, make-up, etc. were just right, all in order to make a living, you wouldn’t ever want to be without some way of knowing how you looked and what adjustments you needed to make, right? That would be unacceptable. Now imagine having that same lack of awareness of how well you were doing and what adjustments you needed to make when it came to developing mastery in a certain field or learning to lead other people. What if you never received any feedback on your effectiveness, your performance, strengths, or areas of opportunity you needed to address? For a leader, that situation would be no less acceptable, and yet it is a reality for many of us.
Over the years, I have learned that leadership development is not simply about learning what you should or should not do, and then trying to force-fit the same one-size-fits-all methods everywhere and on everyone, regardless of the situation. What’s necessary is to diligently learn and prudently apply the timeless and universal principles of leadership in a very customized way that resonates with those you are leading or teaching. Leadership is always a dynamic pursuit because of the differences in cultures, individual preferences, business situations, etc. necessitate different approaches at different times. As such, one of the most important aspects of growing as a leader is that you have to be willing to seek out and learn from your mistakes, and make frequent course corrections along the way.
The only way to accomplish this is to solicit, receive, and act on specific and timely feedback. Unfortunately, this priceless ingredient, namely genuine and helpful feedback, is and often missing for most leaders. This is either because of leaders who are not interested in constructive feedback, or team members who don’t want to take the social risk of coming across as criticizing their peers or their boss. This winds up perpetuating a situation where people are starved for feedback and relying on their own subjective judgment as to whether their performance and behavior is on target or not. As a result, entrenched negative behavior tends to remain in place, and behaviors that might be beneficial end up never being cultivated in the first place.
Receiving timely and helpful feedback is critical for everyone, but especially so when it comes to leaders whose actions significantly impact the results and morale of their entire organization. Unfortunately, nowadays it seems like the higher the office a leader holds, the less open they are to accepting any kind of feedback or responsibility for their actions. Instead, they blame others for their own failings as leaders and demonize anyone who criticizes them in any way, unable to recognize that feedback is a gift. The negative trickle-down effect of these leaders on the organization cannot be overstated. All you have to do is to turn on your TV to see this kind of behavior displayed by so called leaders in high places. I have personally had the misfortune of working under at least two CEOs whose inadequate performance—and unwillingness to accept feedback on it—significantly reduced the size of thousands of people’s nest eggs, while they walked away with their golden parachutes.
If you are a leader, especially a high level one, here are a few questions I’d like you to think about before continuing the rest of this post. Do you feel you get enough honest feedback? If not, why do you think that is? Do you care more about your reputation and pride, or the well-being of your organization and its employees? If it is the former, are you committed to turning that around and making sure that you get proper amount of feedback to ensure that both you and your organization are set up for success?
I’d like you to consider that, regardless of what you say in response, your answers to these questions are the directly expressed in your own behavior. If you are getting an abundance of feedback, it is because you have proven yourself trustworthy and you have shown the people around you that you take feedback well and you do something with it. I hope you take a moment and acknowledge that this does not happen by default. By contrast, I’d like point out that you bear full responsibility for not getting the feedback you say you want, because you are the one who, over time, has trained people around you to be the way they are. As Andy Stanley puts it, “Leaders who don’t listen eventually find themselves surrounded by people who have nothing to say.” You don’t need to declare whether your pride is more important than improving yourself, and if you are committed to the success of the organization even if it requires a little more humility; suffice it to say, those who look to you for leadership have already heard your answers loud and clear, because actions are louder than words.
I remember early on in my career, I used to get pretty defensive when I received any sort of constructive feedback. I always tried to explain everything away and I felt like people didn’t really understand me and didn’t get how awesome I was. In hindsight, I can easily see that people hesitated to give me feedback because they didn’t want the hassle, and I don’t blame them! It turns out I wasn’t the greatest leader to ever walk the earth; like pretty much everyone, I wanted to protect my ego even if that meant sacrificing the opportunity to improve. In the end, I was the one who missed out on the invaluable gift of feedback and, without knowing how my behavior was perceived, there was very little I could have done to actively get better at being a leader.
In my previous blog post (LI) about feedback, I addressed the characteristics of effective feedback and how to give effective feedback. In this post, I would like to share a few considerations on effectively attracting and receiving timely and effective feedback. As I often mention in my writing, I don’t believe in one-size-fits-all prescriptions. Everything I’m about to tell you has been said thousands of times, but if you are still having issues receiving helpful feedback, then for whatever reason, it has not landed for you yet. As such, the only way this post will provide any benefit to you at all is if you go over these points with a fresh perspective and, ignoring the failures of the past, look for what resonates with you at this particular point in your journey:
1. Admit your mistakes often – Others already know you’re not perfect and it is reassuring to them to know that you know it, too. If you’re willing to acknowledge your imperfections, others will feel more at ease to share their perspective with you as well.
2. Treat every interface as an opportunity to seek feedback – Don’t just count on the formal feedback process to find out what others think of your performance. Actively demonstrate that you value continuous improvement and, in that spirit, behave in a way that leaves no doubt that you are interested in receiving timely feedback on an ongoing basis.
3. Follow through on the outcome of the feedback surveys that you implement – Many companies do regular employee surveys and are disappointed when they don’t get a high level of participation. The main reason people don’t want to bother giving you high quality feedback is that they have no confidence that telling you the same thing for the 5th time will make a difference. Why? Because you heard the same feedback four times before and never bothered to address the issue or communicate your rationale for not doing so. Every time you do a broad-based survey, you have an opportunity to build trust by communicating your plans to address the issues that surface.
4. Ask meaningful questions often – It goes a long way to look people in the eye and ask them specific questions with the genuine intention to understand their feedback on your strengths and weaknesses. Ask open-ended questions without suggesting, verbally or through your body language, what answers you would prefer to receive.
5. Assume positive intent on the part of the person giving you feedback – Receiving feedback well starts with your mindset about why the person is giving you the feedback. If you assume they have an ulterior motive, it shows up in your demeanor and it deters people from approaching you.
6. Ask questions for understanding, and listen – Don’t feel obligated to agree to the feedback and be careful not to get defensive. Instead, focus the conversation on understanding the perspective that is being shared. Then take some time afterwards to reflect on the feedback and get back to the person to ask questions and share your well thought-out perspective on what you are going to do differently to address the improvement opportunities presented.
7. Seek to genuinely understand the impact of your behavior on the other person – Don’t settle for just understanding what the person wants you to do differently. Go a little deeper and seek to understand why it is important to them and the positive impact your response to the feedback will bring about for them and others. This way, your behavior change will be motivated by a greater cause than just looking good.
8. Put the person at ease by genuinely showing your appreciation for the trouble that the person took to give you feedback – Remember, the person who is giving you feedback has had to overcome many objections in their own mind to get to this point. They could have talked themselves out of approaching you and, yet, they chose to offer you the gift of feedback. Your part of the deal is to reinforce to them that their effort was worthwhile.
A leader without feedback is like a fashion model without a mirror, or a chef without tastebuds, or a musician with no ears, a photographer with no eyes, etc. These situations usually don’t work well, and they certainly don’t lend themselves to getting better. I hope the above tips have provided a good starting point for soliciting, accepting, and acting on effective feedback, and have helped you begin to see that feedback is indispensable when it comes to leadership. I’d love you hear your victory stories, challenges, or other tips in reference to giving and receiving feedback in the comments below, and I wish you all the best in your leadership development journey.
About the Author: Amir Ghannad is an international keynote speaker, author of The Transformative Leader, leadership consultant, culture transformation champion, and founder of The Ghannad Group. He has made it his life's work to guide leaders and equip them with the tools, skills, and the mindset necessary to create extraordinary workplace cultures that deliver breakthrough results. Download his free e-book, titled 5 Practical Steps to Make Your Culture Transformation Stick by clicking here.
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As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary!
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