by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner
“The only way to discover your strengths,” wrote Peter Drucker, “is through feedback analysis.” No senior leader would dispute this as a logical matter. But nor do they act on it. 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. At least that’s what we’ve discovered in our research.
We have the benefit of rich data thanks to the more than one million individuals who have completed the Leadership Practices Inventory, our thirty-item behavioral assessment, over the years. The point of this tool is to help individuals and organizations measure their leadership competencies and act on their discoveries. Looking across how all observers of leaders have filled it out, one descriptor got the absolute lowest rating – and even across the leaders’ own self-assessments it comes out second to lowest. It is this statement: “(He or she) asks for feedback on how his/her actions affect other people’s performance.”
When we related this finding to the director of leadership development for one of the world’s largest technology companies, he admitted the same was true for his organization. The lowest-scoring item on its internal leadership assessment was the one on seeking feedback.
Further validation comes from a recent survey conducted by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman and discussed in a recent HBR blog. Not only did they find 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.
Why is this? Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone offer this answer in a recent HBR article. “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.” For us, this resonated with something that author Ralph Keyes once wrote about his craft: “As authors discover, all the other anxieties — the many courage points of the writing process — are merely stretching exercises for the big one: feeling exposed (in every sense of the word).” A friend of his, he reports, “compared writing novels to dancing naked on a table.”
What’s true for writers is equally true for leaders. Leaders aren’t eager to feel exposed — exposed as not being perfect, as not knowing everything, as not being as good at leadership as they should be, as not being up to the task. And subordinates are even more reluctant to suggest that the emperor is wearing no clothes.
So what’s a leader to do?
It won’t be enough to increase your receptivity to others’ input. It’s highly unlikely that your direct reports, or peers, are going to knock on your door and say, “I’d like to give you some feedback.” If you want a genuine assessment of how you’re doing, you’re going to have to make the first move and ask for it. That’s what leaders do, by the way: Go first.
That’s exactly the approach taken by a vice president we met at a leading Midwest financial services company. He knew the value of direct personal feedback for his own and others’ growth and development. Yet for his team members, the whole topic of feedback “had a big negative tone to it.” He decided it would help if he reversed the traditional process. “We’re going to do things a little bit different,” he told the group. “Instead of me giving the evaluations, you’re going to start by doing one on me.” After a brief orientation, he left his team to evaluate his performance in private. They were reluctant at first, and the process was initially very challenging. But eventually the team completed it, and then, at the vice president’s request, the team delivered their feedback to him face-to-face.
“The feedback that I received was kind of hard to hear,” he told us. But then he added: “And that was really one of the benefits to the group. To take that personal risk — to model for the group that it’s okay to place yourself at personal risk and take that honest feedback. What I hope the team members would come away with was a sense that it’s okay to be in that environment, that feedback is necessary for growth, and then to see how you accept that feedback and then what you do with it.”
This executive provided the proof of how vulnerability can build trust. Because of his ability to ask others for help, his team gained a newfound respect for the feedback process — and so did he.
Feedback Framed as Learning
Getting valid and useful feedback is essential to learning. And learning is the master skill. Over the years we’ve conducted a series of empirical studies to find out if leaders could be differentiated by the range and depth of the learning tactics they employ. The results of these studies have been most intriguing. First, we find that leadership can be learned in a variety of ways. It can be learned through active experimentation, observation of others, study in the classroom or reading books, or simply reflecting on one’s own and others’ experiences.
What is more important, however, is that regardless of their learning styles, those leaders who engage more frequently in learning activities score higher on The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership (our evidence-based model of effective leadership) than do those who engage less frequently in learning. The truth is that the best leaders are the best learners.
Feedback is too often viewed through a frame of evaluation and judgment: Good and bad. Right and wrong. Top ten-percent. Bottom quartile. These frames raise resistance. But when you frame feedback as an essential part of learning, it becomes less about your deficiencies and more about your opportunities.
The late John Gardner, leadership scholar and presidential adviser, once remarked, “Pity the leader caught between unloving critics and uncritical lovers.” No one likes to hear the constant screeching of harpies who have only foul things to say. At the same time, no one ever benefits from, or even truly believes, the sycophants whose flattery is obviously aimed at gaining favor.
To stay honest with yourself, you need “loving critics.” These are people who care about you and want you to do well — and because they care about your wellbeing, they are willing to give you the honest feedback you need to become the best leader you can be.
Appoint your own circle of loving critics. Turn to them regularly for an honest and caring assessment of your strengths and what you need to do to get even better. Listen to them with the same care they have for you. And when they give you their feedback, your only job at that moment is to say “Thank you.”