There are a number of commonalities among the best leaders. Effective leaders are highly self-aware; they know themselves well and understand their own strengths and weaknesses. Even a step further, the best leaders have a high degree of self-acceptance. They are comfortable in their own skin with a positive self-regard and a willingness to acknowledge their own imperfections. Effective leaders are continually on the path of learning and growth; they have a strong desire to become even more effective.
One of the hurdles in building an accurate self-awareness, however, is perspective. Our own view of ourselves is always biased to some extent, positively in some ways and negatively in others. It is especially difficult to accurately identify and understand some of our own weaknesses. Therefore, an important tool for self-awareness and growth is the gathering of feedback from people around us. The people who see us in action on a day-to-day basis have a valuable perspective on our skills and behaviors. They also have often experienced the effect of those skills and behaviors. Understandably, they may not be quick to volunteer the input that you as a leader need to understand better. Therefore, effective leaders develop the habit of seeking feedback from the people who can offer them perspective and insight. This feedback could come from anyone in our 360° sphere of influence – subordinates, peers, or supervisors.
Requesting feedback is not the easiest thing to do, especially when this is a new habit that you are seeking to develop. Here are some steps that lead to effective feedback:
Lay the foundation through open dialog. Feedback is only of value when it is honest and accurate. Before someone will be willing to give you feedback, especially if that person is a subordinate, they must experience you as an open listener. They must be completely comfortable that you are able and willing to hear honest feedback without repercussions. Without a context of safety, your request for feedback will only prompt platitudes or responses that are postured to please you. Before seeking feedback, develop a culture or reputation of openness and acceptance.
Ask for feedback in a context of learning. Another step toward receiving honest and accurate feedback requires proper posturing of the request. When seeking feedback, first explain the purpose and motivation. To simply blurt out “I’d like some feedback” leaves the observer hanging. Instead the request should begin with something like: “I am working to improve___ and I want to learn ____. Would you be willing to provide me with some honest feedback?” An explanation of your motive behind the request reduces the risk experienced by the observer and sets the context for the feedback that you are seeking.
Be ready for feedback. The feedback that you receive may be positive or negative. Positive feedback tells you what is going well or identifies strengths, but negative feedback identifies behaviors or traits on which you’ll need to work. Being surprised or responding defensively is the worst reaction one can have when receiving feedback—especially when it was feedback that was requested. A poor response demonstrates to the observer that you really have no interest in hearing honest feedback. When seeking feedback, you need to be ready for either the positive or the negative. In either case, the best response to feedback is generally: “Thanks. Please tell me more about that or give me some examples so that I can better understand.” The first statement of feedback is often a general statement. The purpose of seeking feedback is to find actionable descriptions that guide your development plans. Therefore, when seeking feedback, you need to be ready to hear, explore, and understand.
Take action on the feedback. If you seek feedback, take the time to process the input received, to develop a plan of action, and to actually work on growing. This may require sorting out the feedback that you hear and prioritizing the areas that will provide the greatest impact on your growth in effectiveness as a leader. But don’t ask for feedback and then ignore it or get too busy to use what you have learned about yourself. To do so devalues the provider of the feedback.
Circle back to encourage the culture. Once you have received feedback and begun a growth plan, circle back to express your appreciation to those who have provided honest and helpful responses. Perhaps offer a short description of the action that you are taking or ask them to hold you accountable and provide more feedback in the future. By doing so, you demonstrate the reality of your desire to grow and positively reinforce their willingness to provide feedback.
It is common for people around us to avoid the volunteering of feedback, either because of a fear of backlash or because they expect that we may not be interested. An effective leader seeks to grow and improve and they value other people and their opinions. Therefore, they are always open to feedback. Sometimes we need to “prime the pump” by seeking it out. Once we establish a reputation of positive acceptance of feedback, we may even find team members willing to volunteer comment when they see areas for growth. A leader’s ability and willingness to accept and act upon feedback from those around us helps in our growth and also in building the relationship of trust and respect that is necessary for effective leadership.
Ken is a business strategy consultant and leadership coach. His passion is helping companies and people grow and succeed. With an engineering degree and an MBA, he spent more than 20 years working in M&A and business development in the corporate world before founding New Horizon Partners, Inc. in 2002. His consulting practice works with a wide variety of industrial companies, helping them make good decisions about where and how to compete and building their leadership capabilities. To read other articles by Ken on business strategy and leadership, visit the New Horizon Partners website.