Second in a Series on Leadership Feedback
By Vinay Kumar and Jean Frankel
Have you ever had an experience similar to this? It’s late in the day and your time has been spent in some very important meetings with some very important people. Then as the day comes to an end, a close colleague points out that you have spinach stuck in your teeth, or your zipper is down, or some other issue that was clearly visible to others…
If you’re like most people, immediately upon hearing this you feel mortified and embarrassed. You replay in your mind all the people you have met that day and wonder if they noticed and what they must be thinking of you. You also wish someone had pointed this out to you earlier so you could have corrected the situation.
Now let’s reverse the situation. Let’s say you’re the one who runs into Joe, and you see spinach stuck in his teeth, or his zipper undone, or some other malfunction. Let’s pretend this person is your manager, or someone you don’t work very closely with, or don’t know very well. In such instances, would you point such mishaps out to the other person?
If you’re like many people, you’d feel uncomfortable, you’d fidget, and you’d silently carry on an inner battle, wondering if you should tell the person or not. But in the end, you decide to keep quiet, as it’s too uncomfortable to give such feedback, even though it would be beneficial to the other person. Then after you leave, you still wonder if you should have said something. On the inside you feel conflicted, thinking that perhaps the person would have benefitted from your feedback.
Now this is an example of an obvious and visible situation. But what about feedback on management and leadership behaviors that may be less apparent, but no less important to the person’s success? In our experience, we find that most people find it very uncomfortable to give direct feedback, especially as it relates to our conduct (behavior), even thought it would be for the benefit of both the individual(s) involved and for the organization as a whole. When we ask someone if we can offer some feedback, they immediately think – “criticism.” They fear the worst. Even when we give feedback, sometimes it isn’t fully heard or absorbed by the person receiving it. This is particularly true for senior leaders, who don’t receive much feedback regularly, or for highly valued team members with exceptional abilities and contributions to the organization.
Reality is that while few want to provide or receive feedback, it’s an essential data point for management and leadership success. As much as we may try, perception is reality and if our words and actions do not have the desired effect, we have not succeeded. (We’ll have more on receiving feedback in the next article in this series).
So why is it so difficult for us to give feedback? Here are the five most common reasons:
- We want to be liked. Thus we don’t like to deliver news.
- We don’t want to hurt the person. We fear that if they don’t take the feedback well, they may disengage, or even decide to quit. And if they did, who then will do the important work that needs to get done? Along similar lines, especially if we perceive the individual to be fragile, we fear that if our feedback is not taken well, they may hurt themselves in some manner.
- We don’t want to be hurt by the person. We fear that if our feedback, no matter how well intentioned, is not well received, it may lead to conflict, and make it more difficult to work together. o why take a chance, why rock the boat? There are risks
- We feel it’s not our place to say something. This is specially so if it involves senior leaders, peers, and co-workers.
- If we perceive that someone will not be receptive to the feedback, if we see them as a tough nut to crack, and if we suspect they won’t listen, or they have a reputation for shooting the messenger, we then say to ourselves “why bother giving them feedback? They won’t change anyway?”
One reason to give feedback is to first be open to receiving it yourself. And if you want honest feedback, one great way to get it is to authentically request it and give permission to others to provide you feedback in return. If you do that, more people are likely to be honest with you, provided you listen to it without getting defensive, and you don’t punish the messenger.
Another way to receive feedback is to have a third party who is viewed as objective and neutral gather the feedback on your behalf. This is because people will often give more candid feedback to a neutral third party rather than directly to the person involved, provided their identities will not be revealed. In our work as executive coaches to leaders in many kinds of organizations, we are often called upon to conduct 360 evaluations that include qualitative feedback from our clients’ peers, subordinates and superiors. We find that the most effective leaders create a culture of both giving and receiving open, honest, constructive feedback, and not just criticism.
Whatever you do, we suggest you actively seek feedback. For it is much better to know than to fly blind, and to crash and burn, wondering where you went wrong and what didn’t work about your intended behavior and actions. We believe that feedback is truly a gift. So we encourage you to go ahead, give your colleagues positive, actionable, constructive feedback, and also seek it about your own behavior and actions. Then you’ll be flying with your eyes wide open, able to change course as you go.
If you have comments and questions about these ideas, or if you would like to learn more about how you can acquire such invaluable candid 360-feedback for yourself or your colleagues, please contact Vinay Kumar at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Jean Frankel at email@example.com. Thanks!
This is the second in a series of three blog posts that will provide you with timeless steps from our collective experience regarding the important subject of leadership feedback. To get notification when the next posts in the series go up please, subscribe to our newsletter.