Leaders should not be afraid of feedback

If you are being truly honest with yourself, how ready are you to hear honest feedback from the people you lead? Not platitudes, not half-hearted suggestions for improvements, but real, unmoderated and truthful opinion. Are you confident that they would say complimentary things or quietly terrified of a withering assessment?

The idea of feedback is understandably nerve-racking for many – principally because it can challenge the carefully constructed self-image a person creates for themselves. Feedback, whether it is positive or something less so, can fracture the understanding we have of how others think of us, and can leave a person questioning the approach they have taken and the strategies they are yet to implement.

The fear, I would suggest, is that of being left exposed and vulnerable when you push yourself forward and actually ask for feedback. Even the most go-getting, entrepreneurial and adventurous of leaders might feel a touch nervous in the cold, hard spotlight of other people’s opinions.

There is also a not-uncommon perception from within that leaders seeking feedback are somehow revealing a weakness in the way they operate. An ­ever-so-slightly needy “am I doing OK?” that suggests a lack of confidence or an unseemly desire for affirmation and praise.

It can alternatively be perceived as primarily motivated by rank overconfidence – perhaps coming from a belief that nobody could possibly find fault in the sterling leadership and dir­ection they are providing.

Neither perception is healthy, nor much based in reality. Both are formed around a fixed idea that a leader must act deci­sively, with little in the way of self-doubt. This is not wrong, per se – a leader should be confident when making decisions, but it does not need to come complete with a shedding of all measure of self-awareness or a readiness for introspection. In fact, asking for feedback should be thought of as a critical part of a leader’s development.

Logically, you are never going to learn very much if you rely only on your own perception of how you are doing. The vast maj­ority of people are likely to be “soft markers” if left to assess their own capabilities, and even those more critical of their own performance are likely to look to external contributing factors as much as genuinely looking inwards. Getting the feedback of others is really the only way to balance this natural tendency towards self-praise.

This is why many professionals will be familiar with per­sonal development techniques that aim to compile the opinions of the various stakeholders in your professional life – your reports, your managers, your peers – and then present them as tightly-focused and hopefully-helpful feedback.

While these more formal feedback approaches are exceedingly useful, leaders do not necessarily need to wait for them to occur to their organisation’s HR departments and consultants. It is far better to take the initiative and help the conversation along.

For example, Richard Branson, the star of a million Linked­In shares, has reported actively seeking the opinions of customers and other stakeholders, keeping a notebook of feedback that has a direct bearing on his leadership approach for improving company performance.

Or there’s the example of the legendary GE chief executive Jack Welch, who helped members of his board of directors gather their own “intelligence” on his leadership by encouraging them to meet his executives in less formal visits where he was not present. By inviting them to gain a more unfiltered view of Mr Welch’s leadership, the board was able to provide feedback with real substance.

Obviously, the need to ask for feedback can be easier to say than to do – even where leaders can surmount their trepidation to invite opinion (and, by extension, possible criticism), they must also find an approach that does not alienate or intimidate the people they speak to. Faced with critiquing their boss, many people will be naturally cautious or outright suspicious, and will be reluctant to offer useful feedback.

However, if you recognise that it is only fear – and largely irrational fear at that – that holds back both parties from making the process a success, it is pos­sible to get past this discomfort. If a leader demonstrates genuine openness to the process – helping to convince their report that they are not “out to get” them – and a report returns this show of trust, a leader can benefit from a genuine understanding of how they are truly performing as a leader.

Ahmad Badr is the chief executive of Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group


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