If feedback is the breakfast of champions, how do I get a bowl?

One of the key truths that leaders learn is that they will need feedback from other people to continue their development. We cangrow in some ways without constructive feedback, but its absence is a significant limitation.

We all have a strong internal voice that evaluates our effectiveness as leaders. It is a pivotal point for leaders when we realize the need to look for other viewpoints to check and balance that internal voice. When we realize that, the challenge can become the process of actually asking for feedback. If we are not currently regularly requesting and receiving feedback, how do we start? Who should we ask? How should we conduct those feedback conversations?

Asking for feedback to help on our quest to become more effective leaders can be daunting. In the wonderful book Reinforcements, Heidi Grant shares reasons people are reluctant to ask for help. We frequently think others will not want to help us or we fear making ourselves vulnerable by asking. Grant shares studies that illustrate how flawed this thinking is. Studies consistently show that people are much more willing to be helpful than we frequently think. She also found that, by expressing our vulnerability, we tend to create stronger and more trusting relationships. Everything points to the value of leaders getting past their reluctance and asking for feedback.

Nevertheless, even if we value feedback it can be tricky. Let’s break it down into a few key tips:

1) Whom should I ask?

When you think about asking for feedback, first think about whom to ask. It is best to begin with the people who work directly with you as they will have the most plentiful points of reference to provide feedback with breadth and depth. Good sources are your manager, your teammates who report to you, and colleagues that interact with you frequently. Those who you interact with regularly in the community may also be good sources who see you leading and teaming in a different environment.

While all of these sources are valuable, the people who report to you directly are perhaps the most critical. Your direct reports see you in action as a leader, they will have observations that you may find helpful. They feel the impact of your approach and may be able to provide a very valuable perspective on what they feel you are doing.

When you determine whom to ask for feedback, try to avoid just asking those with whom you have the strongest personal relationships. Only asking friends can create a bias in what you may hear. Although the feedback from direct reports who are challenging for you or a colleague whom you butt heads with frequently might be harder to take, the value comes from the honesty and variety of viewpoints.

 2) How do I approach a potential provider of feedback?

Direct reports are often uncomfortable providing feedback to their supervisors. They may be concerned that the leader doesn’t actually want to hear what they will share. At times, there is also the concern that they do not want to hurt the feelings of the person leader and even that there might be retaliation if feedback is not entirely positive.

Because of this, it is important to be open and inviting when you ask people for their help. First, don’t hit them out of the blue with a request for feedback. Give them time to think about what feedback they’d like to give you. Set the stage ahead of time by telling the person why you are seeking feedback and how you will use it.

You could say something like –

“I want to improve my abilities as a leader. I need your help providing feedback and ideas on how I am working with the team and what I could do to improve. I’d like to start our one-on-one meeting next week by you giving me some feedback. I’ll send you a few more tips in an email but I want you to be comfortable being honest with me. That’s the only way I’ll continue to grow as a leader.”

3) How do I make it easier for people to provide feedback?

When you ask team members to provide feedback, it is important to give them enough information about how to do it well. By providing a little structure for people, you can greatly increase the amount of useful feedback you receive. Sharing examples of some of the information you are looking to hear about can also narrow their focus to make the conversation more manageable.

You could send a follow-up email like this:

I would like to get feedback from you on an ongoing basis. If there is something you see that I could be doing differently to support you and the team, I want to hear about it.

Feedback should be behavior-based, so when you are providing me with ideas, it should focus on my specific actions or behaviors. Tell me what I did and what impact you think it had on you or the team. The more specific the feedback, the easier it will be for me to understand it.

If you have ideas about how I could have handled it differently, please share with me. It would help if you can share when I have been helpful as well. We know that balanced feedback works well. When positive feedback is specific it is more helpful as well. 

Making clear that you are hoping to create a long-term feedback loop is also helpful. People may not take your request seriously if it’s a “one and done.” Opening up this new avenue for communications requires a commitment on both sides and you will often find that direct reports, colleagues and even community members are more and more open as the conversations continue.

4) What types of questions should I ask?

It is good practice to have some questions prepared before a feedback session. Frequently a mix of closed-ended and open-ended questions may work best. While a closed-ended question can be helpful for coming to decisions, open-ended questions allow you to interact more deeply to learn more about what people see. When you are seeking feedback without a specific issue in mind, it is still helpful to plan some questions to support the conversation as people share with you, showing your interest and engagement with the feedback.

Have a list of potential questions ready if you are looking for feedback around a project or some specific issues. If you just ask someone for feedback on a certain proposal, for example, you may get a mix of responses from someone taking to task for your grammar to another questioning your entire concept. Narrow it down to the specific type of feedback that would be helpful for you and sketch out how you will be utilizing their feedback.

Because it is a conversation and not an interrogation, start with some questions but be willing to let the person giving you feedback take it in a different direction. Because you can’t see ourselves from others’ viewpoints, you may not even be aware of an area where you could benefit from feedback.

5) How should I act during the meeting?

A few keys to the meeting itself:

  • Practice active listening – People will have different views and perspectives. When they report to you, your ability to listen and receive it well, then to follow through and apply the lessons is important to continue the flow of information into the future,
  • Ask clarifying questions – Show that you are trying to learn and understand by asking questions about the feedback but don’t go too far with the questioning as it can start sounding defensive.
  • Take notes – It shows your interest and commitment when you are writing down what you are hearing from people. A side benefit is that, if you hear something that is difficult, you can read it later without interruptions to really take it in and consider it.
  • Thank them for the feedback – This is key as these conversations can give the feedback giveras vulnerable as the receiver. And, even if you heard something difficult, watch your interactions (especially with direct reports) and don’t be overly attentive or avoid feedback givers. Give them a cue on the next time you might ask for feedback, too, to again reinforce that it is an ongoing conversation.
  • Follow up – Your reactions and how you apply the feedback to make improvements will give people confidence in your commitment. This will also improve their desire to provide feedback into the future.

Part of building a habit around feedback is the spirit with which you approach the interaction. Being open with those who provide feedback, we can learn a great deal about ourselves. Don’t take my word for it, here is some wisdom from one of the top authors on leadership of our time.

“Be welcoming and assume that the information is intended to help you be better rather than anything otherwise. Ask questions and ask for examples. Make sure you understand what is being said and learn about the context as well as the content. Say thank you. Let the other person know that you appreciate his or her feedback and that you can’t get any better without knowing more about yourself and how your actions affect others.”  ― James M. Kouzes

It may not always feel comfortable when you start, but the rewards for you and those you work with are immense. Build a practice of pursuing feedback and honor the people who share feedback with you by using it to grow as a leader.

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Evans Kerrigan

Evans Kerrigan works tirelessly in both corporate and public sectors as a dynamic business consultant, presenter, and coach. With over 30 years of experience working with multi-national organizations such as Cisco, Sun, Blue Cross Blue Shield, BP, State of Arizona and King County Washington, Evans has been at the forefront of change management--building healthy organizations and creating great places to work. His contributions to these organizations have been credited with increasing employee engagement scores, dramatic reductions in costs and improvement in efficiencies and revenue, resulting in improved operational excellence.