The Behavior Leaders Fail at Most
The research of Kouzes and Posner indicates that seeking feedback is the behavior leaders fail at the most.*
Useful feedback enables you to compare self-perception with the perception of others. Experience shows that the gap is often surprising and uncomfortable.
The more authority you have, the less likely you seek or listen to feedback. You wrongly believe you’re above this essential exercise. As time passes, you settle into comfortable leadership ruts.
Feedback enables leaders to tap untapped potential. Without feedback you may do well. But, if you seek and listen to feedback, you’ll do better.
3 Challenges for seeking and receiving feedback:
- The need to appear like you have it all together.
- Finding someone with courage to tell you the truth with your best interest at heart.
- Rejecting the voice of your own gut in order to test the instincts of others.
Ask specific questions about behaviors.
“How am I doing?” invites general feedback. On the other hand, “How is my hands-off approaching working with you,” invites specific useful feedback.
- What did you think I was trying to accomplish when …? Don’t tell people what you were doing. Ask them.
- What am I doing that helps you connect to organizational values and mission?
- What am I doing that enhances your performance? Hinders?
- When am I most effective? Least effective?
- How am I enhancing the performance of teams?
Intentions matter to you. Behaviors matter to others.
Respond to feedback:
- The first response to feedback is always the same. Thank you.
- Say, “Tell me more.”
- Ask, “What do you suggest?”
The pursuit of excellence requires feedback that describes, affirms, challenges, and improves specific behaviors.
What might leaders do to solicit useful feedback?
What are some useful responses to feedback?
Dan, you make a much needed point that the more power a leader has the less likely they are to seek feedback. Research also shows the more power, the less likely it is for a leader to practice empathy.
And what you say here is so true: “Finding someone with courage to tell you the truth with your best interest at heart.”
Thanks Allan. Your comment reminds me that power tends to invite isolation. Isolation invites arrogance. Arrogance and lack of empathy are bedfellows.
Glad you dropped in!
” Arrogance and lack of empathy are bedfellows.” Great soundbite!
I agree with Allan. It is hard to get that feedback. At least once a year I send out a “feeler” feeback email or “one on one” to my direct reports. For the most part, those that are ok with “our relationship” share there best feedback to me. Of course there are other people that won’t reply. It is those people that I try to reach out to maybe not direct, but letting them know through behaviors and actions that they can feel safe and comfortable in providing that 360 degree feedback.
Then of course I also get feedback when a direct report feels more comfortable going to my direct manager and giving them feedback. While this is an acceptable practice within my company, I would most appreciate the opportunity to discuss and learn how “I can do better”.
Thank you for the article.
Thanks Omar. You bring up an important idea. Relationship and healthy feedback are related. great motivation to build strong transparent relationships. Of course, some won’t reciprocate, but the effort is worth it.
It always stings a little more when someone goes over your head and the feedback comes down from above. I sense your reluctant acceptance of this practice.
I have mixed feelings about anonymous feedback. I wonder if it might be an alternative to going over one’s head?
Hi Christa, if I understood your response correctly, you speak to 1) how the main benefit of feedback is to make staff members “feel” valued; 2) how there could be a prospective problem with insecure and unhappy staff members as a result of feedback; and 3) how pseudo-feedback can be merely be a mechanism to gain a leader’s approval. And, yes, you do endorse the sincere exchange of feedback in which insights, knowledge and opinions matter.
I agree with you in total. And I believe it is wise of you to bring expanse to this conversation by including those staff members–and leaders–who engage in feedback for reasons other than its sincere purpose: To go far we must begin near, and the nearest step is to our staff members. If we want to deal with the big things well, we need to train ourselves to deal with the tiny things really well. Feedback—while not a tiny thing—is basic training in communications and dialogue between manager and staff member.
If feedback reaps value and valuable insights, everyone wins by both the experience and the results.
I think you summed up my thoughts better than I expressed them. I was trying to look at it from both a leader and employee’s perspective. I have seen a lot of feedback from subordinates be “heard” yet nothing ever done about it. What always came next was disenchantment and frustration because their idea was not executed in anyway. As long as the leader takes the time to take the employee aside to explain reasons it couldn’t be executed (often times for reasons more associated with the whole picture) this can be avoided. I guess my point is, poorly handled feedback can be destructive.
On the whole and when properly handled however, I completely agree with your points and the original point made by Dan.
It seems as if at the end of the day, the main accomplishment of requesting and engaging in feedback is making the employee feel valued. I think that it is incredibly important for this kind of dialogue to occur from the standpoint of the employee and the employer. The employee needs to know that their opinions matter, what they notice can be very helpful and if an employee was brave enough to give the employer honest and direct feedback that it would then be an epic tool.
The problem is how does and truly can that happen aside from anonymously?
What happens to the employee who gave feedback that clearly was given from a place of insecurity and lack of scope for the big picture when the feedback truly can’t be put to practice? Or the disgruntled employee who for a whole host of reasons is never happy?
Then there is the added issue of the employer trying to not react out of surprise, confusion, insecurity, or uncertainty in how to end the conversation respectfully.
I would think though, in my perspective, that the most truly valuable feedback would come from the direct supervisor (assuming one is around and decently engaged) who sees the entire picture, watches the interactions, and witnesses the final product. That person is not afraid to be blunt, recognizes what can or cannot be done, and will more accurately point out room for growth.
Even with my different perspective, I still think that it is extremely important for employees to get the chance to be heard, because in being heard they feel valued, understood, cared for, and important. They are important, their opinions do matter and help, and so they should be heard.
While there can be some feedback that is insightful and helpful from one’s employees and it does truly close the elitist gap that can occur; I just think that the feedback that will truly, truly change the way one leads would be less likely to be found from those who still are seeking the employer’s approval. Not that it can’t, it just seems as though it would take twice as long to get enough valuable and honest feedback. Just a thought I was mulling over after reading all of the posts and dialogue.
Great topic. Like some orgs, that are currently in the news, when critical feedback (meaning both positive and negative) are supported and appreciated, people will feel more free to give and to seek feedback. However, when people are, in reality, punished for giving it, beneficial feedback won’t occur.
Unfortunately, people are not taught how to give and how to receive feedback. Systems, organizations so often don’t really support it. IMHO.
In making this one valuable point (actively seek feedback), you have made several… values and mission matter (a lot); a leader’s role is to help others perform (not the other way around); teams matter (much more than individual endeavour)… Love it!
We tend to believe our good intentions sanitize the bad outcomes of others. That’s obviously not true. If something turned out bad, it’s just bad, and no amount of “But I didn’t mean it …” will fix the problem.
Since retirement, in retrospect I can see many situations where I should have more actively sought out feedback from my team, rather than just taking what came in under the umbrella of my “I am always interested in your feedback” style. When leaders discount feedback because employees “don’t see the big picture,” I am prone to respond that it is the responsibility of leadership to help people see that big picture, as well as each person’s place in it. Of course we will weigh feedback based on the source, but I can honestly say I never “shot the messenger” for unexpected or critical feedback. I was fortunate in that I almost always had that trusted “someone with courage to tell [me] the truth with [my, and the team’s] best interest at heart” close at hand. Proverbs 27:17 tells us,”As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” and so I found it to be. As a police academy and college instructor since 1991, I am accustomed to being evaluated by 20 to 40 students after each class or course I teach, so my skin is thick enough to seek, accept and fairly evaluate critical feedback.
“Intentions matter to you. Behaviors matter to others.”
Another way of looking at that may be, “Others judge your intentions from your behavior”.
What do you think?
Too often, leaders know they are addressing an important question (and therefore don’t seek feedback, indeed don’t even hear unsolicited feedback) and that’s the focus, the only focus. One of my favorite movies is “American President.” The president has decided crime must be addressed AND the passage of that bill will lead to his re-election. His staff dedicates to ‘passage of the crime bill by the a State of the Union speech.’ His girl friend and a staff member provide unsolicited feedback about this single focus but he ignores it. The watered down bill passes – with predictable friend / staff reaction. In the movie, the President ‘wakes up’ and all’s well at the end – as often happens in the end.
In real life, unfortunately there’s too little ‘waking up’ with disastrous results. A leader must be an active listener who routinely self-assesses – including Consideration of the (welcomed) feedback!!!
Responding to feedback with “What do you suggest?” is so important! While we are not obligated to act on those suggestions, we are obligated to gather unto us the perspective of those we trust and even those who oppose us. Then we can act on the culmination of that perspective entwined with our own.
It seems like the more authority you have, the harder it is to get honest feedback. I’m not sure this is the fault of the leader all the time, but a by-product of the authority. People are more concerned about telling you what they think you want to hear, and are concerned about how honesty might affect their future career.