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I’m going to let you in on a secret, I’m not a perfect leader! None of us are. I’ve always considered myself to be reasonably self-aware, but then honestly who doesn’t. Many years ago, I found myself unable to inspire and lead a group of passionate volunteers. I knew I needed further development and the path I took was through feedback. I expected to discover things that I couldn’t see in myself, but was evident to others around me. I also anticipated not liking, or even agreeing, with some of the feedback. What I didn’t count on was how hard it would be to find people and a process that would give me honest feedback. And the more senior my role, the harder it became. And I know I’m not alone. I’ve worked with CEO’s who crave those checks and balances, but can’t find anyone who is prepared to be frank with them.
Countless studies have found that self-awareness is a key factor associated with high performance and potential, and an indicator of long-term career success, especially for leadership roles. To be a good leader requires many skills, but all things being equal, a high level of self-awareness appears to be the trait that is most likely to determine our success as a leader. Having an educated guess on how we are perceived is not good enough, the only way we can know our blind spots is if someone tells us.
There is a wealth of information about how to give feedback, not so much on how to seek it. You may find, like me, it isn’t a simple matter of asking and listening. Here are some the strategies to get the most from your feedback gathering:
Anonymous feedback does more harm than good
Several years ago, I was lucky enough to do some coaching with my friend and Leading Teams facilitator Kraig Grimes, before he retired to a do ‘a spot of fishing’. Kraig has a philosophy that all feedback should be from a known source. Whilst anonymous surveys (360 or otherwise) may offer candour, it doesn’t provide you with the opportunity to dig deeper on the other person’s experience with you. Having been through a few 360 surveys, I’ve seen people (me included) misunderstand the feedback, leading to people focusing on the wrong things. Anonymity also makes it easier for us to dismiss or explain away the feedback. As Kraig told us, if you have to use the channel of anonymity to get genuine feedback, then you have a much bigger problem of trust in your culture.
To get the most out the feedback, you need to ensure you have a shared understanding of that feedback. This is likely to involve you probing for specifics. Whilst more daunting, I have found face-to-face conversations by far the most valuable. Handled well, it becomes more like a coaching conversation than a formal review.
Pose specific questions
I’ve found that ‘do you have any feedback?’ is likely to be quickly answered with ‘no’ or only positive feedback. Now I ask for feedback on a specific behaviour or action, such as ‘how could I have communicated that differently, so that we didn’t get so much resistance’. The first time you ask someone for feedback, they are likely to be vague, so it’s important to dig a little deeper to get that shared understanding. I can remember being told that I ‘was too quiet’. I could have taken that any number of ways, including saying that is just part of my personality. After unpacking some examples, I discovered my ideas and advice were getting lost, because I was reluctant to speak up at meetings. That was something I could work on.
The other approach that I’ve found beneficial is the Stop-Keep-Start (SKS) Method. The SKS Method is a proven process, first conceived by Brigham Young University psychology professor Phil Daniels. It is a simple, but highly effective, tool. The method is built on asking others what you should Stop doing, what you should Keep doing, and what you should Start doing. They fill in the blanks with no more than three responses to each section.
I’ve received some valuable feedback using the SKS Method, but you may find time people soften their responses the first-time round. It might be the third or fourth conversation, before the person trusts that you genuinely want to hear their perception of you and your work.
Sooner rather than later
Don’t wait for your annual review to ask for feedback. We often think that receiving feedback has to be a sit down formal conversation, but some of my best feedback has been a side conversation soon after an event or interaction. As with anything, the more often you do it, the easier and less stressful it becomes. If you have a feedback conversation every week, you’ll become more skilled in your questioning, be less surprised by the responses and people may start to offer you feedback, without you having to ask for it.
Who to ask
For those of us nervous about asking for feedback, it will be tempting to ask people who will say nice things about us. Whilst positive comments might make us feel better, it won’t help us to get a true picture on how we are perceived or what might be preventing us from getting that promotion.
When you are first seeking feedback, you’ll want to get input from people who have observed your behaviours and communication style, and whom you feel confident have your best interests at heart. This could include: managers (current and former), colleagues (within and across teams), direct reports, family, and friends.
Bill Gates once said, ‘our most unhappy customers are our greatest source of learning’. I would argue as a leader, your most disgruntled staff are your greatest source of learning. If you want frank feedback, the best person to approach might be the one you’ve had the most difficulty with. This one might need to wait until you have a few feedback conversations under your belt, but the learning could be priceless.
The career benefits of seeking meaningful and ongoing feedback will far outweigh any initial awkwardness in asking for it. I know I have benefited both professionally and personally from actively seeking and reflecting on feedback. Of course, gathering the feedback is only the first step. In our next blog, we’ll discuss what to do with the feedback, particularly if you don’t agree.
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Claire Huntington has over 15 years’ experience in senior and executive level human resource management and strategic leadership positions. Claire learnt HR under the wings of great mentors and through trial and error. She has a very practical hands-on approach to HR and management, and isn’t afraid to look outside the box. Claire is also mum to three primary-school aged firecrackers and is an avid photographer in her spare time.
Disclaimer: The material contained in this publication is of a general nature only. It is not, nor is intended to be, legal advice. If you wish to act based on the content of this publication, we recommend that you seek professional advice.