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Feedback Anemia

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Most successful executives navigate the essential experiences necessary for their roles. They honed their skills and advanced their knowledge. Most have had mentoring, coaching, progress monitoring, and performance feedback – all helpful in moving them towards their upward path.

Once leaders reach top executive levels, most of their colleagues are subordinates. The mentoring, coaching, and progress monitoring is infrequent, whether from the board of directors or very senior supervisor. There is rarefied air at the top for many executives. They become isolated in the world of anemic feedback – think “lonely at the top.” The likelihood of receiving constructive and strategic feedback is low. They are less likely to receive constructive and strategic feedback. To whom can one talk to and be safe, or get honest and candid feedback? Great question.

The answer is never to become more isolated from constructive criticism or strategic advice. Unfortunately, my experience in working with senior executives is that this is the very thing that happens. After years of getting feedback, followed by getting very little feedback, it can be seductive, leaving the executive with a sense that s/he is doing everything well. Most often, though, I think it becomes rote – “it is just the way things are going to be, c’est la vie.

Seduction and acquiescence are dangerous choices. Seeking to increase one’s self-awareness is always essential. Integrating self-perception and feedback are the first steps to self-awareness.

How can leaders collect accurate information on themselves? Moreover, why should they need to receive precise information on themselves? The answer is quite simple: because if leaders are not aware of how they act and contribute as leaders, there is a high likelihood that they are not as effective as they could be.

As stated, most senior executives have a portfolio of experiences, skills, and knowledge required for their job. Nevertheless, this does not preclude the need to continue experiential learning, to hone skills, and increase understanding. An extreme example I will never forget is when one COO, my supervisor at the time, told me when I recommended a book, “I do not read books, I know what I need to know to run this business.” His direct reports thought he needed to read the book.

Leaders seek out information about projects, capital, action plans, opportunities, and other enterprise activities before embarking on the initiatives and continuing basis. They want the organization to perform effectively and efficiently. They need to have the same discipline with themselves. So the information that senior leaders most need to collect for themselves is about their behaviors, styles, and preferences.

Our inside personality, called identity, is how we think we behave, and our outside personality, called reputation, is how others experience our behavior. What we believe and how others experience us may not match up. How should leaders reconcile this?

A variety of formal awareness processes exists in most organizations. 360° feedback, psychometric assessments, and performance reviews name a few. Each of these can provide helpful, insightful information – welcome them. Most of these formal processes occur once per year or less. Feedback once a year is not enough. What is enough?

Monthly is too often—it can overwhelm the person(s) from whom you are requesting the feedback. The goal is to have 3-5 touchpoints over the course of the year. You can and should spread those requests for feedback out. Don’t always ask the same person for feedback. Have a stable of people you hear from and listening to – both junior, equal, and senior to you.

If you are feeling hesitant about the idea of more frequent feedback, you are not alone. As Lily Tomlin once said, “Self-knowledge isn’t necessarily good news.” People tend to avoid feedback because they often associate the word with negative or corrective information. Therefore, it is understandable that many leaders do not seek it. In my experience coaching executives who demonstrate a range of leadership capabilities, an area they acknowledge they need to address is seeking feedback.

Interestingly, leaders who recognize this need are rarely defensive or averse to criticism. They often cite time as a factor. My observation, though, is that it is less an issue of time and more about behavior. Executives need to practice seeking feedback and build it into their management toolkit. Here are a few straightforward steps to take to invite some response to how you’re doing in any given circumstance:

  • Recognize that managers cannot ‘correct’ their performance and lead even more effectively without feedback;
  • Know that employees will rarely volunteer feedback to their direct managers, especially senior executives. Ultimately, they believe that providing negative feedback or criticizing those who hold power and influence in organizations could backfire;
  • Embrace a set of feedback questions that reduce fear or defensiveness, for others and you, as follows:
    • When I am at my best as a leader (your supervisor, your peer, your direct report), what am I doing? Addresses what you are doing well and should continue or do more often;
    • To be even more effective, what could I do? Addresses potential ways you could become even more effective.

Establish trust the first time, and every time, you solicit feedback from someone:

  • Receive the input, do not offer retort;
  • Remember that you can make choices on what feedback you accept or do not accept;
  • If you hear the same, or similar, feedback from multiple sources, pay attention;
  • Say “Thank You;” 
  • When appropriate and genuine close the loop on the feedback you received and how it was helpful.

As you get to know yourself better, feedback becomes a less challenging process. You learn how to put it into a broader perspective and how to allow it to help you achieve your dreams.

“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”

― C.G. Jung

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