To Get Honest Feedback, Leaders Need to Ask

By: Jim Bruce
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Today’s Tuesday Reading is “To Get Honest Feedback, Leaders Need to Ask”, as essay from the pens of Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner which appeared on the HBR Blog Network.  Kouzes and Posner are coauthors of The Leadership Challenge:  How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations.  Both are at Santa Clara University where Posner is Acolti Professor of Leadership and Kouzes is Executive Fellow of Leadership at the Leavey School of Business.

Peter Drucker wrote that “The only way to discover your strengths is through feedback analysis.”  However, as Kouzes and Posner discovered through their research, “Most leaders don’t really want honest feedback, don’t ask for it, and don’t get much of it unless it’s forced on them.”

The Kouzes-Posner Leadership Inventory, a 360 survey based on the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership model, has been completed by more than one million individuals over the past four decades.  (I completed it in 1989 as part of an effort to learn more about my leadership competencies.)  They note that “Looking across how all observers of leaders have filled it out, one descriptor got the absolute lowest rating – and across the leaders’ own self-assessments it comes out second to lowest.  It is the statement:  ‘(He or she) asks for feedback on how his/her actions affect other people’ performance.’”

In a similar Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman report in a recent HBR post, they note that “leaders often don’t feel comfortable offering [constructive criticism].  They also discovered that the individuals who are most uncomfortable giving negative feedback are also significantly less interested than others in receiving it.”

Heen and Stone, also in an HRB article note “The [feedback] process strikes at the tension between two core human needs – the need to learn and grow, and the need to be accepted just the way you are.  As a result, even a seemingly benign suggestion can leave you feeling angry, anxious, badly treated, or profoundly threatened.”  “Leaders aren’t eager to feel exposed...  And subordinates are even more reluctant to suggest that the emperor is wearing no clothes.”

So, what is a leader to do?  It’s not likely that direct reports, peers, or others are going to come forward and give you some feedback.  So, you have to go first!  You have to make it a practice to ask for feedback.  Some leaders may take the bold step of asking their direct reports for feedback and then have them present it orally to him/her in a group setting.  In doing so he demonstrated that it’s OK to put yourself at personal risk and receive honest feedback.  Citing an example from a Midwest financial services firm, Kouzes and Posner note that “Because of his ability to ask others for help, his team gained a profound respect for the feedback process – and so did he.”

You can see feedback through a lens of evaluation and judgment, of good and bad, right and wrong, top 10%, bottom 10%, etc.  This lens yields negative feelings.  On the other hand, if we see feedback as learning it becomes less about deficiencies and more about opportunities.

Receiving feedback well, taking it as an opportunity to learn, learning, and putting that learning into practice moves you along the journey to being  a more effective leader.  

If you are not on that journey, begin today by asking someone you trust to give you feedback.  And, remember to say "Thank you!"

.  .  .  .    jim

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