The Leadership Practices Inventory 360° created by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner is an assessment tool to measure leadership effectiveness. Team members are asked to rank their leaders on 30 behavioural statements. Of the 30, the worst scoring one of all is, ‘Asks for feedback on how his or her actions affect others’ performance.’
Receiving feedback can be one of the most difficult challenges for leaders, because it forces us to face our shadow, which is extremely uncomfortable. However, feedback is absolutely critical for a vertical growth culture. Feedback is how we ensure that our organisation really is living our stated behaviours, and how we prevent unconscious behaviours from becoming the norm. It’s also how we do accountability well while maintaining psychological safety.

Defensiveness destroys trust and credibility

As I explain in my book The Mindful Leader, a feedback culture can only thrive if giving each other feedback results in constructive, growth-based conversations. It will die if it is punished and defended against in obvious or subtle ways. This is particularly true of feedback going up from team members to leaders. If that’s defended or punished, a challenger level of psychological safety cannot survive. Not only that, but your values on the wall will always be different from your values on the floor.
We often ask leaders, ‘When was the last time a team member gave you challenging feedback on your behaviour?’
Interestingly, many leaders respond, ‘I haven’t received any,’ and they feel proud of themselves.
I respond, ‘Well, that means there are one of two possibilities: either you’ve become perfect, or your team members don’t feel safe enough to give you feedback. Which one do you think it is?’
Barry Keesan, Senior Vice President of Work Smart Learning, once told me, ‘For me, it’s actually a validation that I’m doing something right when my team gives me honest feedback. It means I have a good relationship with my team when they tell me when I did something that was out of line.’
When people give you tough feedback it’s a sign of trust and of the highest level of psychological safety. When they withhold feedback, it means they don’t trust you. And without that trust, you can’t lead.
As we have pointed out several times, when we receive feedback, our immediate response is typically to go into defence mode. We deny, rationalise, justify, deflect, withdraw or even counterattack. When we are defensive, we destroy our trust, credibility and psychological safety with our team. Furthermore, we stop all growth and learning within ourselves.

Cultivate distress tolerance to receive feedback

Given that defensiveness arrests growth, disengages others and destroys relationships, why do we resort to it so instinctively? What’s the payoff? The untrained mind immediately seeks to escape discomfort and slip into pleasure or numbness — what we refer to as distress intolerance.
Taking ownership of our behaviour requires vulnerability, which can be extremely difficult to face. But, as we often say, ‘Burning is learning.’ Facing the burn of vulnerability is precisely what helps us learn, grow and create more connection in our relationships.
Cultivating distress tolerance through increased vulnerability is absolutely vital to a vertical growth culture. Without it, we fall into rationalising, excusing or counterattacking. With it, we can truly listen to and empathise with others. When people feel they can give us honest feedback, this creates more trust, and therefore more openness and connection.

Use curiosity to understand feedback

We use a question with our clients that helps them take accountability: ‘What’s my part in this?’ When we receive challenging feedback, there’s a second valuable question to help us interrupt our fast-brain reactivity: ‘Tell me more.’
We receive difficult feedback and feel the fizz and burn of the emotions that arise. We feel that desperate desire to defend ourselves and deny so we can feel better. In this space, we can take a breath, lean into the uncomfortable emotions and ask, ‘Tell me more.’ This is how we begin to cultivate curiosity in the midst of distressful emotions.
Then, as we sit and listen with curiosity, we can connect and empathise with the person giving us feedback. We can see how our behaviour is affecting him or her, and the underlying need behind the feedback. We can then create more connection.

The more we can slow down our reactive-brain reactions when receiving feedback, the more psychologically safe, constructive and growth-based our relationships and culture will be.