The Feedback Primer Series_3x5 Leadership_Primary Graphic

Brené Brown, one of my favorite authors, uses Teddy Roosevelt’s 1910 speech as the foundation for the title and structure of her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. She asserts that this quote perfectly encapsulates her research into why we find being vulnerable such a hard thing to do.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

So, what does this have to do with feedback? Well, I think everything.

I see many of our organizations lacking sufficient formal, institutionalized feedback loops for their people, especially leaders. I believe most of us would claim that the only formal feedback (or feedback, period) they receive is through their annual evaluations. There may be some that are fortunate to receive formal feedback and professional counseling more often, say quarterly or monthly. But that is likely a minority.

This level of feedback is inadequate. We cannot actively engage in effective leader growth or performance enhancement with such little routine feedback. And the same applies for our people if we are not providing it to them routinely either.

Leaders need to start by getting ‘in the arena’ of being vulnerable and seeking feedback from others; we cannot be critics or spectators outside the arena. This is the best way to compensate for the lack of existing organizational feedback loops and a way to take responsibility for our development, not being victims of our circumstances. If appropriate feedback is not given to us, we must seek it. We need to create opportunities to get feedback from others. So, let’s look at why and how we can.

Why Leaders Must Create Their Own Feedback Loops

Beyond the challenge of insufficient formal feedback loops within our organizations, the need for leaders to create our own methods to seek feedback is critical for a few other reasons worth discussing.

  • Maximize growth in your own self-awareness: We need to start with growth within ourselves before we can consider to start impacting or developing others. Improved self-awareness directly feeds into improved leader effectiveness. It is also the foundation for emotional intelligence, cultivating our abilities for self-management (or self-control) and social awareness (the ability to understand the emotional makeup of others).
  • Role-model & lead by example: We, as leaders, must never expect anything from our people that we would or could not do ourselves. We need to ‘get in the arena’ of feedback to set the example for others by demonstrating a desire to get better ourselves, and a willingness and routine personal commitment to doing so. We must not critique or spectate from the stands of the arena; we can only inspire others by ‘getting out asses kicked’ in the arena of feedback with them.
  • Create psychological safety for others to do the same: If the boss is unable or unwilling to solicit honest and quality feedback from others, no one else across the team will be either. Even if it is subconscious or unintentional, when a leader is “above” receiving feedback from others, it creates a climate of organizational silence where no one is willing to share ‘truth in love’ with one another. Leaders must create the psychological safety to make giving and receiving feedback acceptable and desirable. We need to start by being the first ones in the arena to start the movement.

First, A Few Leader Perspectives

Before we dive into specific leader behaviors to solicit feedback and create those necessary ‘truth in love’ loops for ourselves, we need to address three important mental perspectives that leaders must maintain about seeking feedback.

Up, Down, & Across – Feedback Must be 360-Degrees. While most (if not all) of our existing formal organizational feedback loops tend to be top-down fed from our bosses, often in the form of evaluations, this is incomplete and removes valuable perspectives from those that lead across from and below us on the organizational chart. We must seek feedback from everyone up, down, and across the team or organization. Each level provides a unique and beneficial perspective on our performance, potential, behaviors, and leadership – subordinates, peers, and bosses alike. Receiving feedback from this larger variety of sources provides a more complete view of ourselves, rather than just a limited and narrow view from one source, say from our bosses only. We must first be able and willing to solicit feedback from all 360-degrees of sources. But then we must also actually action that willingness and seek the feedback from all sources. It is too easy to say I desire feedback from others, especially my junior leaders or members; it’s a very different thing to action a pursuit of it.

Who to Actually Seek Feedback From. Important questions that we tend to ignore are: “Who are the people that I should in fact seek feedback from? Should it be everyone? If not everyone, then whom?” I’m not sure there is a right answer, but my view is that we should be open to feedback from everyone, be able to discern the feedback, accept and internalize it if valid, or reject it if not valid. Frist, we must demonstrate the willingness and openness to receive feedback from anyone. I don’t want to ever discredit the potential for someone to offer me valuable insight about me as a leader and my performance; we never know or assume who can be that insightful source. I don’t want to deny any opportunity for my growth, no matter the source.

But then, how do I know whether to accept and internalize feedback received or reject it? I think there are several ways:

  • Personally reflect on the feedback. Spending some time deliberately processing through and mentally chewing on the feedback can afford you the ability to assess relevancy and accuracy.
  • Talk it out with a trusted colleague or peer coach. Having another’s perspective can be incredibly valuable to help assess validity of feedback we receive.
  • Discuss it with a mentor. Leveraging their more-experienced outlook can help us best frame the legitimacy of the feedback.
  • Give it time. If, over some time, we begin to see that we are getting similar bits of feedback from multiple sources (especially from different levels like up, down, or across), that might be a signal on the feedback’s validity.

Another consideration is to identify the “loving critics” in our lives, as Tasha Eurich describes in her book, Insight: The Surprising Truth About How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More Than We Think. She describes loving critics as people who have mutual trust with us, have sufficient exposure to the behavior we want feedback on, a clear picture of what success looks like for us, and are willing and able to be brutally honest with us. So, while we can/should be open to feedback from any and every one, it can be helpful to have loving critics identified in our lives as our primary sources of consistent, go-to feedback. Loving critics can be up, down, and across our team, but they can also be in other areas of our lives; for example, my wife is the #1 loving critic and peer coach in my life. You can learn more about loving critics and Tasha Eurich’s thoughts on self-awareness and feedback in her book (mentioned above) or in her podcast episode on Coaching for Leaders.

Remember, Feedback Cannot be Novel. Finally, the last leader perspective is that seeking feedback from others cannot be novel. We can’t seek it once and think we’ve achieved the intent of ‘getting in the arena.’ Nor can it be so periodic that it raises concerns or worry in our people; we don’t want them thinking, “why is he/she asking me this?” or thinking that there is something wrong because you’re asking questions they are not used to. We want our solicitation for feedback from others to be a routine thing that we do routinely. We want it to be part our normal order of business every day.

Now, How Leaders Can Create Feedback Loops for Themselves

So, how can leaders seek feedback and create those feedback loops for themselves? More importantly, how can we make it a routine thing that we do routinely? Below are some recommended behaviors that we can all start now to ‘get in the arena’ of feedback and leverage it for deliberate self-development and self-awareness growth, making it safe for others to follow suit, and inspiring them to join us in the arena.

One common thread throughout all of these below behaviors is our need to deliberately seek opportunities to solicit feedback in every event or activity, interaction with others, and so on. The time or scope span of our feedback loops can range from major perceptions of performance or behavior over six-months or a year (maybe the most macro-level level of feedback) down to a single meeting with others or interaction with one person (more toward the most micro-level of feedback); more on feedback loop time and scope spans in part 4. But it’s important that we view any event or moment as an opportunity to get quality feedback from others.

  • Leadership by wandering around (LBWA) time: One of my favorite leadership behaviors is leadership by wandering around (LBWA). This unstructured, casual leader behavior is a great way to demonstrate presence and creates opportunities for quality, low-threat interactions with your people. As you practice and develop this habit, you can incorporate questions to solicit feedback from your people, both about you and the organization. When you make a conversation with your people a safe environment, do not underestimate the rich feedback you can get.
  • Creating focused feedback sessions: Just like we plan and prepare for targeted sessions to provide our people feedback, as we discussed in part 2, we can also do the same for receiving feedback. Can you make those opportunities of you providing someone else feedback also an opportunity to receive it from them? We can make it a two-way dialog, not only in exploring your feedback for them and co-creating their developmental plan of action, but also in giving/receiving feedback. In the US Army, we use the term “counseling” as a mechanism for leaders to formally set expectations of their people and to routinely provide feedback off those expectations. Such counseling sessions don’t have to be one-sided in that the leader is the only one providing feedback. Those are incredible opportunities for leaders to solicit it too.
  • Start small: It’s funny how the vague question of “what feedback to you have for me?” tends to generate no actual responses. You notice that? It’s because that is such a broad, general question that people don’t know how to answer it or where to start. Leaders need to start with a small scope when asking for feedback. Ask specific questions on a targeted event or behavior, not boundless perceptions.
  • Use targeted, key events: One way we can start small is by planning feedback around specific events like a training event, lecture, or meeting. After the event, we can talk with our people to seek feedback on it – how impactful was it, what specifically made it impactful, what made it less than stellar for you, etc. I think Adam Grant does an exceptional job discussing this dynamic in his episode on Rachel Botsman’s Trust Issues podcast. Another idea is planning out and/or planting a ‘loving critic’ in your audience or group for a specific event. This could look like talking with a loving critic colleague before a meeting, asking them to pay attention to your behavior or some focused aspect of the meeting, gather feedback about it, and have them share it after the meeting. This makes feedback more deliberate, rather than happenstance, hoping someone is willing to share a thought.
  • And, again, make it routine: I bring this up once more because it is that crucial. By making it routine – as part of your daily and weekly behaviors – you not only maximize opportunity for your personal growth and development, but you send the message to all of your people that “this is how we do business around here; we hold one another accountable and we make one another better by seeking and sharing ‘truth in love.’”

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