How Leaders Can Get Honest, Productive Feedback
By Jennifer Porter, Harvard Business Review
As an executive coach, I work with many successful leaders who want to become even more effective. Recently, I asked a client of mine what kind of feedback she was receiving to help her be a better leader. She said, “My last performance review was really positive. My boss told me I’m doing a great job and I should just continue to do what I’m doing.”
That felt nice to hear, I’m sure. But it is also completely unhelpful to her growth and development.
According to research on effective learning, to improve performance, people need three things:
- A clear goal
- A genuine desire to achieve that goal
- Feedback that indicates what they are doing well and what they are not doing well
Unfortunately, the feedback many leaders receive is not helpful. It’s often infrequent, vague, or unrelated to specific behaviors — and as a result, leaders tend to be less proactive about getting more of it. Low-quality feedback is not useful, positive feedback is undervalued, and negative feedback delivered unskillfully can actually cause physical pain.
Without clear performance targets and data measuring how close or far they are from reaching them, leaders will continue to find it difficult to grow and improve. When delivered thoughtfully, however, feedback can provide leaders with the actionable data they need to become more effective.
If you want to get the feedback that is necessary to improve your leadership, there are a few steps you can take.
Build and maintain a psychologically safe environment. Sharing feedback is often interpersonally risky. To increase the likelihood of your colleagues taking that risk with you, show them that their honesty won’t be met with negative repercussions. You can do this before you ask for feedback by being curious, rewarding candor, and showing vulnerability. Being curious starts with having the right mindset, or believing that you have something useful to learn. It is demonstrated by asking your teammates open-ended questions that you really don’t know the answers to: “What could go wrong if we try this?” When you listen to and genuinely explore your colleague’s different, and possibly risky, perspectives — even if you disagree with them — you are rewarding their candor. Acknowledging your weaknesses or mistakes along the way are great ways to be open and vulnerable.
Ask for feedback skillfully. Asking “What feedback do you have?” rarely elicits a useful response. Instead, ask about specific events (“What did you hear when I shared my strategy?”), worrisome patterns (“How often do I interrupt people in meetings?”), personal impact (“How did it feel to you when I sent that email?”), and lastly, recommendations (“What can I do to help build my relationship with Priya?”).
Request both positive and negative data. Clients tell me all the time that they just want to hear “the bad stuff” when it comes to feedback. What they fail to appreciate is that positive feedback that targets a specific behavior is useful. It tells them what they don’t need to work on, and increases their motivation to focus on the behaviors that they do. For clarity, positive feedback is not the same as praise. Praise tells us someone is happy with us and thinks we are performing well. Praise sounds like: “Nice job!”; “You were great in that meeting.”; “Killer presentation!” While it feels good, praise does not give us enough information to understand what we are doing effectively so that we can repeat the behavior.
When receiving feedback, give your full attention and listen carefully. Eliminate distractions, including your phone and laptop, and focus fully on the person giving the feedback. Having your phone present, even if you’re not looking at it, negatively impacts relationships and reduces your ability to connect with others. Listen carefully to what the other person is saying, resisting the impulse to evaluate the accuracy of the message.
Don’t debate or defend. If you find yourself disagreeing with some feedback, practice self-awareness and notice this reaction, but do not offer contradictory evidence or challenge your colleague. If you debate, you will look defensive and not open to feedback, and you may decrease the likelihood of that person offering you feedback in the future. None of these are the outcomes you’re trying to achieve — so don’t do it.
Own your reactions. You may feel happy, angry, confused, or frustrated by what you hear. Recognize that your reactions are about you, and not the other person. If you asked for feedback and someone was brave enough and generous enough to share it with you, it’s your responsibility to own and explore your reactions. Instead of finding fault in the messenger, become curious about yourself. Ask: Where is this anger really coming from? What about this is confusing? What part of the message is actually true for me, even if I don’t want to acknowledge it?
Demonstrate gratitude. Say thank you in a way that conveys sincere appreciation. If you’ve heard something helpful, the person giving you feedback likely spent a good amount of time considering your performance and how to thoughtfully discuss it with you. They took a risk by being candid, so let them know how much you appreciate their effort and courage.
Reflect and evaluate. Now that you have some new data, reflect on what you’ve heard even if you don’t like reflection. By thinking through the meaning and implication of the feedback, you can learn from it and consider what parts to work on, what parts to disregard, and what parts require deeper understanding. To do this, it helps to think about your development areas, the value you place on this individual’s perspective, and possibly, what you have heard from others as well. This is also the time to come back to what you may disagree with. Given that your objective was to learn others’ perspectives on you, ask yourself if it’s really worth the potential damage to go back and “correct” the information. Typically, it’s not.
Make a plan and take action. All of the steps before this set you up to make a plan and put it into practice. Pick one or two capabilities you want to improve, get really clear about what “improved” looks like, and then consider the steps necessary for you to learn and adopt that new behavior. Making a plan and taking action are not only important for your learning and development, they’re also a signal to those who shared the feedback — you are serious about improving and you value their perspectives.
Sustain progress and share updates. You need to repeat new behaviors for at least two months for them to become new habits. If you go back to your feedback providers and tell them what you are doing differently, you’ll give them a catalyst to change their perspectives, validation that you heard and appreciated what they had to say, and the opportunity to see you as a person who is committed to your professional development.
Great leaders are great learners. Their never-ending pursuit of information pushes them to constantly improve and sets them apart from the rest. Getting and learning from feedback isn’t always easy, but it is necessary, if we want to become better. It’s rare that our colleagues will offer us the kind of feedback we need to develop, and also rare that we respond in a way that rewards their efforts and helps us improve. It’s worth building the skills to do this well if we want to reach our full potential.