Do people tell you the truth? Not about things in general, but about your work? Do you tend to hear their candid opinions about your decision, your behaviour and your impact?
How much feedback do you get? Especially, how much feedback do you get that’s not from the boss, but from peers, team members and others you work with? How easy do you make it for them to tell you?
I was informally coaching a senior manager friend a while back who was upset at hearing that their brand was not positive in parts of his organisation. He was furious that others had not come to him and directly offered him their views and instead were engaged in gossip or discussion that didn’t paint him in a flattering light. He was understandably hurt – but more, he was surprised.
We discussed that organisations are not the rational places we pretend them to be. They are social systems, communities of people, rubbing shoulders with each other, and sometimes rubbing each other up the wrong way. They are human systems full of irrational processes, micro-politics, chatting and indeed gossip. We discussed that whilst not all gossip is helpful nor professional, the informal connections in any human system make the existence of gossip an inevitability.
Once my friend calmed down I asked him what he’d thought his brand had been before the gossip came to his attention. He looked quizzical, and said that it must have been fine because no one had told him otherwise. I asked him what he was like at eliciting feedback – either formally with explicit requests or informally through an open style. On reflection, he admitted that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d received genuine feedback, positive or formative. He was pretty much a feedback-free-zone.
This experience started me thinking – and asking around. How different are we when it comes to seeking feedback?
Many years ago I started work as a tutor at a leadership college. I remember being amazed at the quantity of feedback sloshing around the organisation – it seemed business as usual there. And I was overwhelmed at the amount that came my way. I talked (well, more ranted actually) with my mentor that I couldn’t possibly act on all this feedback – not only was there just too much, but much of it was contradictory: ‘I love your confident delivery,’ vs ‘Your style is a bit overpowering,’ or ‘Your energy is infectious,’ vs ‘Your energy is a bit too much, could you take a chill pill?’ My wise mentor asked me if I thought that I had to put all feedback into action. I reflected and said, ‘Actually, yes.’ She then suggested that I change my definition of feedback, from advice-that-should-be-followed to potentially-useful-information.
I went on to develop a mnemonic that helped me hold feedback as just information about which I have choices. I don’t have to act on f/b. I can choose to act on it if it’s quality, check it out if it’s confusing, think it over if it’s complex, file it if it’s not pertinent yet, or bin it if it’s rubbish (although, when ten people tell you you’re dead, it’s time to start lying down).
Since that time I’ve become much more feedback-friendly. Feedback is a less threatening domain and I at least try to encourage it from colleagues as much as I can. Feedback is the life-blood of improved performance – the fuel that our reflexive engine needs to power the improved practice our colleagues deserve. It’s the only way we’ll really get to understand the core leadership question: ‘What’s it like to be on the receiving end of me?’
Whilst feedback is definitely just information about which we have choices – the most adept leaders I know, both from personal experience and from literature, are those who are more than feedback hungry. Über leaders do more than elicit feedback and listen openly – they actively mine all feedback for the nugget of truth that might be buried within. More, when they find that nugget they evidently act on it, and in doing so they secure their brand as an approachable, even humble leader, who is open to change.
So, what about you? Are you open and encouraging of feedback, or defended? Do you:
- carry the demeanour of someone that’s keen to hear the good and the not so good?
- make it easy for people to tell you challenging news?
- engage in formal 360 degree feedback such as using the Healthcare Leadership Model?
- ask your team at meetings how the session went?
- save time in appraisal meetings to turn the tables and elicit upward feedback?
- set up surveys, focus groups or a suitable mechanism to hear feedback from internal customers on the service your team provides?
- take seriously people’s well meant feedback and show you’ve listened by visibly acting on it?