Leading Without Feedback

By Deb Busser
Deb Busser

True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes.”
– Daniel Kahneman

Feedback. This word can trigger such a visceral reaction that some organizations are experimenting with other names. At GE employees now provide ‘insights’ to their colleagues. Leadership guru Marshall Goldsmith is a proponent of using ‘feedforward’ to inspire positive change.

And yet, we get feedback all the time. Many of our cars have back up cameras and ‘blind spot detection’ that let us know when we get to close to another object. We have a new washing machine that plays a song longer than many of my selections on Pandora to let us know when a cycle is complete. At a high level, we tend to like feedback. More information is good. It can even be motivating. Am I the only who has walked around my bedroom before going to sleep at night to make my Fitbit goal and see the fireworks on my Alta?

As a leader, it is easy to say how much you value feedback. And I would bet you do, when it comes to understanding how the market is reacting to your latest scientific findings, or when you are trying to understand what might be impacting employee engagement or retention. But what about when it is about your personal leadership style? How much do you want it then?

Senior leaders can talk about how much they want feedback, and in the same breath talk about what they do to shut it down. At a recent executive team offsite, the CEO acknowledged that when she is getting impatient with a discussion topic in one-on-one meetings, she gives non-verbal cues to her team to let them know she is no longer open to hearing more. She is a great leader and she has a ton on her plate. However, just when her team members might be ready to go deeper and provide her with some information on how she could be even more effective, she closes down.

A little while back, I facilitated a learning group of international executives at an elite business school. They traveled across continents to invest their time and energy in becoming better leaders. I spent time with each of them to explore what their developmental edge might be, and without exception they told me how valuable it would be to learn from one another – to be perceived with fresh eyes in a learning environment with senior leaders.

As a couple of people presented their business challenge to their cohort, you could see the presenters getting uncomfortable with the questions posed by the group to better understand the issue. Two of the presenters became defensive and shut down before our eyes. Later, some members of the group said that they would not ask questions or give feedback to those members again – it felt too risky and uncomfortable. With just one interaction, they had decided it was not worth it to engage.

How can you be truly curious about how you can improve? What would help to treat feedback as data or information that could help you achieve what is important to you– or at least better understand the perspectives of the people around you? What barriers can you remove?

Good leaders know that the higher their seat in the organization, the less likely they are to get genuine feedback.

Do what you can to encourage the flow of this valuable information.

  • Share what you believe to be your areas of growth. What are you working on? Why is it important to you?
  • Ask specific questions about how you approached a meeting, or handled a difficult transaction.
  • Dig deeper, when you hear something vague or if you are not clear on the message. Be willing to be curious.
  • Show that you heard the feedback. Expressing your thanks in real time is good. Reflecting on it and sending a note later is also good. People will really get the message when they see that you have modified your behavior in some way.

Lastly, build your own feedback receptor muscles and celebrate with your version of a happy song, or Fitbit fireworks each time you receive it.