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Leadership Development

Published By:
National Post

Gift of Feedback is a Two Way Street


In my last column, I wrote about the importance of creating a feedback culture —a tolerant, uplifting environment in which senior executives are encouraged to constructively criticize each other's management behaviours— in fact, they should be rewarded for it as part of their compensation package.

One problem we discussed was creating a climate of trust that enables people to discuss sensitive topics such as personal judgement or decision-making. But there's another snag that's just as tricky, because it springs from people's deepest insecurities:Training people to receive feedback.

Some individuals deflect criticism like water off a duck's back. "They don't know the whole picture," they tell themselves. Or they dismiss the critic by saying, "He just doesn't understand my style," or worst of all, "Consider the source."

I've had the benefit of working with older colleagues who often took me aside to point out when I'd made a mistake or said something stupid. It is difficult to realize you've messed up so badly that people feel they should intervene, but over time I learned to appreciate such feedback.

Today, mentoring cultures are scarce, so many executives have never had the opportunity to learn the value of peer feedback.

Ironically, we now need this informal education more than ever. Business is moving faster and getting tougher. A close-knit management team whose members share their experiences and learn quickly from mistakes is in much better shape to conquer this brave new world than distrustful colleagues learning in splendid isolation.

Providing feedback to peers is a delicate art, requiring a positive tone, precise language, and the sensitivity to know when to stop. But accepting feedback is almost as tough. Since no one teaches us how to receive feedback, here are 10 steps to get you started.

  1. Begin with humility. Jim Collins, management guru and author of Good to Great describes modesty and humility as essential traits of Level-5 leaders (the best-performing chief executives). Acknowledge that you can get better at what you do, and your peers are positioned to help you improve your skills and identify weaknesses.

  2. Accept feedback positively. Tell yourself that criticism is not a sign of failure: It's a chance to grow. Reassure your peers, through words and body language, that you welcome their comments and will give them due consideration. You'll get more feedback over time that way.

  3. Show appreciation and ask if there's more. Most of your "critics" will start out nervously, opening with a tentative, even-handed observation. Let people know you're willing to go further if they are. The deeper you venture into a topic, the closer you'll get to the heart of the matter, and thereby receive fundamental insights few other people ever get to hear.

  4. Avoid becoming defensive. If you think someone has misdiagnosed your problems or misunderstood you, don't rush to correct them. Keep listening, and ask questions to gain clarity. Other people's perspectives are always useful, even if their perceptions about our behaviour don't match our own.

  5. Ask for clarification. If you're not sure what your critic is trying to say, ask for specific examples or cases that illustrate the behaviours they're discussing. Don't forget to ask what the other person would do in such a situation, to make sure you benefit from another point of view.

  6. Show interest. Use active listening skills to demonstrate your interest in the other person's comments. Summarize what you think you've heard, and then add, "So what you're saying is…" to make sure you've been getting the message right. Your peer will appreciate the respect demonstrated by this effort - and you'll ensure that you haven't filtered out any essential parts of their critique.

  7. Reflect on their comments. Just because someone gives you feedback, it doesn't make them right. Give their comments due consideration, but also review what you did and the reasons why you did it. Even after sober, objective reflection, what's right for other people is not always what's right for you.

  8. Get other opinions. Make notes of the feedback that rings true for you. When possible, bounce some of these ideas off other peers.

  9. Follow up. Create a list of To-Dos and behaviours that need changing. Let your critics know you have taken their advice seriously, and that you'd appreciate a heads-up if you make those mistakes again.

  10. Return the favour. If someone gives you the gift of feedback, don't be afraid to return it. Stifling any thoughts of payback, look for opportunities to critique the people who have leveled with you. Your mutual honesty will help you both grow stronger, even as you build a powerful shared sense of trust.

And perfect or not, you can still believe in your own judgment. "Level 5 leaders are a study in duality modest and wilful, shy and fearless", Collins notes.