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.
In a recent study of 51 896 leaders, leadership authors and researchers Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman discovered that those who ranked in the bottom 10 per cent in asking for feedback were rated at the 15th percentile in overall leadership effectiveness. On the other hand, leaders who ranked in the top 10 per cent in asking for feedback were rated, on average, at the 86th percentile in effectiveness. Clearly, being open and willing to receive feedback from others is an essential skill for effective leaders.
Feedback and leadership effectiveness
Feedback is a check on reactive-brain behaviours. It’s an excellent mechanism to support and increase our self-awareness and self-regulation. If we can deal with feedback constructively, we can use it to halt our reactive-brain responses and move to healthier responses.
Selina Short, Managing Partner for the Oceania professional services organisation at EY in Australia, shared with me why getting honest feedback is critical to her leadership. She said, ‘As a leader, I do my best to constantly examine myself and try to be as objective as possible. But that’s not enough. I also have to seek feedback from others. Because if I just stay within myself, I’ll potentially fall prey to my own justifications or blind spots.
‘When I first started my career, people were very hesitant to give constructive feedback. They wanted to be very gentle with me. But I urged them, “Just tell me. Don’t put any good feedback with it, because I’ll completely dismiss it. Be direct and be specific. I want to know.” ’
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 by opting for 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 quick reactions when we feel criticized: ‘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.
Sometimes, however, feedback actually isn’t constructive or valid at all, but simply projections and fabrications. In fact, that’s one of the core reasons why people do defend themselves — because if they don’t, then people can get away with unfair feedback. But using ‘Tell me more’ weeds out unfounded feedback.
If someone is truly being unfair, the worst thing we can do is defend against it, because now we give them the opportunity to say, ‘I knew you would respond like this.’ We give them that space by falling into the trap of defensiveness.
The best way to expose unfair feedback is to stay open and curious. It typically comes in the form of judgements and complaints, rather than objective criticism. For example, ‘You don’t care about your team members,’ or ‘You only think about yourself.’ In this case, the next step is to ask them for observable examples.
For example, a team member accuses you of being a micromanager. Your first response is, ‘Tell me more.’ You sit and listen. If she continues with vague accusations, you ask, ‘Can you give me specific examples of what my micromanaging looks like in terms of behaviour? What do I do that makes you think I’m micromanaging you? I’d really like to understand.’
If she can’t provide a real example — something that actually happens — there’s really nothing you can do about it, in which case the unfairness of the feedback is exposed.
Other questions you might ask in such a situation are, ‘What exactly are you requesting? What specific behaviour would you like me to change?’
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. You may be surprised by what a difference such simple questions can make. After I had worked with one executive team the CEO came up to me and exclaimed, ‘I had no idea how powerful these simple questions could be. People are really changing, and the culture is really changing.’
These questions become cultural soundbytes, which team members can refer to lightheartedly to depersonalise the awkwardness of working with new behaviours. This helps to ensure psychological safety throughout the process.