What the Best Leaders Know About Getting Feedback (that the worst ignore)


Diane Bolden | Executive Leadership Coach in Phoenix ArizonaThere is a little sushi restaurant that opened up in my neighborhood a few months ago. Being sushi lovers, we were delighted — and equally excited when we came upon a grand opening offer to buy vouchers for this new restaurant through a third party at a discounted price. Eager to do what we could to support a small neighborhood business, we bought several of them.

We enjoyed our first meal there and looked forward to returning. But when we did, we encountered a sign on the door indicating the restaurant would no longer honor the vouchers we had bought. We later discovered that the only option for recovering our expense was to apply it toward other establishments we had no interest in.

Our enthusiasm toward the sushi restaurant turned to bitterness and we never ate there again. Stories of the restaurant’s actions circulated quickly and we learned of many others in our neighborhood who were equally miffed. Months later, their parking lot is almost always empty.

Who in their right mind would be so careless with the very people they need in order to succeed?

Leaders who solicit feedback without considering the implications run this risk all the time. In this article, we’ll explore three surefire ways to destroy trust through feedback efforts — and what to do instead.

Why gather feedback?

Soliciting feedback is a good idea for a leader because everyone has blind spots. Blind spots are areas of your effectiveness (and lack thereof) that other people see but you do not. Typically the more senior the leader, the higher the number of blind spots. This is because senior leaders are often only told what others believe they want to hear.

Additionally, we often undervalue our strengths and what we have the ability accomplish if we just apply them in a broader context or with a slightly different twist. A little bit of acknowledgment and encouragement from others on how to do this can go a long way in helping you to play a bigger game by bringing more of your true self to your work.

Bosses, subordinates, peers and even customers tend to have great insight into how leaders might be sabotaging their own success and what they could do to be more effective. But most of these people rarely share their thoughts because they do not have occasion to do so. And more often than not, it just seems uncalled for and potentially inappropriate.

To benefit from the insight of others, leaders must proactively solicit it.

So how do you gather feedback?

Often companies gather feedback as part of an annual performance review. However, this is most commonly done via a survey instrument that doesn’t provide the clarity and level of specificity most leaders need. In addition, feedback is often only solicited from a leader’s direct reports, rather than from peers or customers, which can be a bit lopsided.

Leaders can attempt to gather their own feedback, but often despite their best intentions they will get polite, politically correct responses that either contribute to blind spots or create new ones.

One of the best ways to gather feedback is to engage the services of a third party such as an executive coach to interview a variety of stakeholders you interact with. A good interviewer will probe into people’s responses to get the level of detail and specificity required for feedback to be meaningful.

Additionally, inquiries should be made not only about what is going well or needs to be improved, but also about the impact of current behavior and suggestions for enhancing performance. This feedback is then consolidated into a report that identifies themes and recommendations.

Why do leaders need to take care in soliciting feedback?

Asking people to provide feedback for you is a lot like selling vouchers to support the grand opening of a restaurant. It requires them to give you something (their time and honest feedback) that they would otherwise not be inclined to provide — in an effort to support you. It also raises the expectation that they will get a return.

Their return could be as simple as a thank you, but more often than not when people provide feedback they do so in the hope that you will actually do something with it. When this unspoken agreement is not honored, people providing feedback feel slighted in much the same way customers who buy vouchers that will not be honored would.

And when people you need in order to succeed (like your employees, peers and customers) feel slighted, you destroy their trust and risk that their goodwill toward you will sour. You miss out on a vital opportunity to improve your own effectiveness as well as that of your organization. And you may create problems for yourself you could have prevented.

Take the example of Sara

Sara heard rumors that people had complaints about the way she was managing her team. Try as she might, she could not get people to give her a straight answer. In her curiosity to find out what others were saying about her, she engaged the services of an executive coach to gather feedback.

When Sara received her feedback report, she grew angry and defensive

She called a meeting of her staff during which she demanded to know who said what and why. In the meeting, people looked at each other in stunned silence. When no one spoke up, Sara launched into a diatribe defending each point in the report, citing examples in an effort to discredit what she had heard.

Sara ended the meeting admonishing her team for not being willing to say what they needed to say to her face and challenged them to come to her next time instead of talking behind her back.

While she may have felt vindicated after that meeting, she alienated her people and actually destroyed what little trust she may have had with them. Rather than feeling encouraged to share their insights, her direct reports went to great lengths to mask what they really thought of her and did whatever they could to keep her off their backs. Some of them started looking for other jobs.

What did Sara do wrong?

She made three critical errors:

– First, her reasons for gathering feedback were not constructive. She had no intention of evaluating her own behavior and no desire to change it in any way.

– Second, the time and thought people provided to give Sara feedback was received with irritation and potentially negative consequences rather than appreciation and openness.

– And third, rather than using the feedback as a lever to improve herself, she made her people wrong and became even more entrenched in her current behavior.

Most executives don’t make such glaring and potentially damaging errors. But without careful thought and consideration they can fall into these traps without even realizing it.

Three tips for using feedback to increase your success (instead of derailing it):

– Ensure that your intention is constructive

– Make providing feedback is safe and gratifying for your stakeholders

– Follow up and follow through

Let’s talk about each of these.

Ensure that your intention is constructive

Don’t gather feedback unless you sincerely want to improve your effectiveness. It is important to set the stage in advance so that people have a good understanding of your rationale. They need to see that you are humble enough to acknowledge there is always room for improvement. They need to know that you are open to hearing what they have to say. And they need to believe that you have every intention of acting on it.

Asking people to provide feedback for you sends an affirming message that you value their unique perspectives and input and want to improve your leadership so that you can be of better service to them. It is important to let them know why you are want their input and what you plan to do with it. This brings us to the next tip.

Make providing feedback safe and gratifying for your stakeholders

It takes courage to give constructive feedback to another human being. Especially if that person is your boss. People who feel like something is at stake (like their job, their reputation, or their relationship with you) will hesitate to be honest or anything but flattering. There are a few things you can do to ensure this doesn’t happen.

One thing you can do is ensure that feedback will be kept anonymous

Unless you have gone to great lengths to seek dissenting views and encourage people to provide honest feedback, most people will say far more when their identity will be protected. A good coach will ask open-ended questions that allow themes shared by several feedback respondents to naturally emerge.

Encouraging people to speak candidly and reassuring them that you will not know who said what can go a long way. And so will expressing gratitude to them in advance for being willing to take time out of their busy schedule to provide feedback.

It is also important to let your stakeholders know in advance what the process of gathering feedback will entail and what will be done with it once it is gathered. This leads us to the next tip.

Follow up and follow through

Feedback gathering efforts done right generate a wealth of constructive information, insights and suggestions. It illuminates what people who are critical to your success appreciate and need most from you and may even spell out specific steps you can take to deliver.

Often feedback will confirm things you already suspect you need to work on. Other times it brings surprises you never could have anticipated. In any case, it is critical that you receive it with appreciation and gratitude.

The very act of gathering feedback raises the expectation that something will be done. Though you don’t need to share every detail of your report with people, it is vital that you thank them for taking the time to share their insights and let them know what actions you plan to take as a result of hearing them. You can also take the opportunity to ask for additional feedback.

But what if you don’t agree with the feedback?

While you may not necessarily agree with suggestions that emerge through the feedback, it is important to recognize that perceptions others have of you are based on their observations of your behavior.

If you don’t agree about a perception, following up with them in a spirit of curiosity can shed light on what you may be doing (or failing to do) that is contributing to a negative perception. This information will help you to determine the most constructive way of responding.

Failure to follow up at all leaves a void that people tend to fill with their own information and assumptions. You run the risk that people will assume you just don’t care about their feedback — or them. Additionally, your lack of follow through can lead people to question your integrity and reliability. They will doubt your sincerity and even begin to question your credibility.

In contrast, circling back with them once or more to acknowledge their input and invite continued feedback will reinforce the message that you value their perspectives and are serious about improving your effectiveness and being of greater service.

Let’s review what we’ve covered

– Soliciting feedback is good leadership development. It allows you to become aware of your strengths and opportunities for improvement that others may see but you do not, and to gain insight on what you can do to increase your effectiveness.

– Gathering feedback is best done by a third party such as an executive coach. Personal interviews with critical stakeholders are instrumental in getting the level of detail and specificity required for feedback to be meaningful.

– Proceed with great care. If soliciting feedback is done for the wrong reasons, received defensively, disregarded or refuted, it can destroy trust and create ill will.

– Ensure that your intentions for gathering feedback are constructive and clearly communicated. Make sure people know you are serious about improving your effectiveness and being of greater service and why you have selected them to provide feedback.

– Make providing feedback safe and gratifying. Ensure that your stakeholders will not be singled out and that they understand the process that will be used for gathering feedback and what will be done with it.

– Be sure to follow up and follow through. Show people that you appreciate their input and will not only take it to heart, but put it into action. Enlist them in providing you with ongoing feedback as you endeavor to improve your effectiveness.

To be successful, a leader needs stakeholders like a restaurant needs customers

Stakeholders, like customers, can give you great insight into what you need to do to succeed. Don’t leave them stuck with a bill for a meal they didn’t get to enjoy. Invite them to the table, listen to what they have to say, and then show your appreciation by acting on their suggestions and input to become a better leader.

No chopsticks required.

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