When comedians are perfecting their art form, they get immediate feedback – when the audience laughs, they’re doing well. If not, the comedian gets the sense that the joke needs to be refined in some way. In comparison, leaders seem to have a tough time getting clear and useful feedback. What perspective should you have about feedback in order to reap its rewards consistently?
To ensure sustainable leadership development, leaders need to be able to recognize feedback, refine them into useful insights, accept them with humility and courage, and adjust to them as required. Let’s utilize the four parts of leadership in order to understand the way of thinking that is required in order to make the most of feedback.
Self – Practice accepting feedback with humility and courage. Let me flip this around by first describing to you what it’s like for other people to give you feedback in the first place. It is incredibly difficult to give honest feedback. When you get it from someone, it is likely that they put a lot of thought into it before approaching you. It is likely that they’ve been bothered by something about you for a while or that they care about your development. In my MBA we had professional coaches come in to teach all of us how to give feedback like pros. Delivering feedback is so hard, there is a $49 USD “Guide to Delivering Effective Feedback + Tools” from the Harvard Business Review. Even armed with this guide, I’ve messed it up on multiple occasions.
There is no point to feedback if you aren’t ready or willing to accept any. It also means you lose a lot of opportunities to develop your leadership skills. Assume nothing about your leadership abilities.
I had a colleague in military college who would lash out commands to everyone he ever had the opportunity to lead without considering the appropriateness of the situation or the outcome. He was a great drill instructor, but was terrible to work with on an academic project. Ironically, I got the sense that he thought that he was actually being a great leader by showing confidence and force at all times. Whenever anyone tried to tell him that he didn’t need to be so authoritative, he refused to consider the idea.
When somebody gives you feedback poorly, at least give them the benefit of the doubt and listen without judgement. Medicine caked in mud is still medicine – it takes humility to be willing to sift through the mud and courage to accept the medicine.
People – Practice requesting feedback. Recall that feedback is difficult to give. Most people do not know how to give feedback. Therefore, unless you ask for feedback, most people you ever follow or lead may avoid giving it to you. Even in my military career, most leaders I’ve met were shy to give feedback.
When you ask for feedback, people have to be confident that you will listen to them, take them seriously, and value their input. If people don’t already feel this way about you, you will find it even harder to request feedback. This is a terrible and vicious cycle that tends to cause poor leaders to ironically lack for feedback. This tends to perpetuate their poor leadership skills. This comes back again to humility and courage. It also comes back to listening. That’s why I wrote first about listening skills – listening is the foundational skill that enables you to be a leader that is worth giving feedback to in the first place.
Situations – Practice recognizing feedback. Leadership is an art that requires a balance of so many factors that it’s hard to separate the relevant feedback from all the noise. I hypothesize that this is exactly why there are so many executive coaches who provide one-on-one feedback to business and community leaders.
The best feedback will surprise you when you recognize it. In fact, the more shocking it is, the more you need to pay attention. Why? Because it means you probably failed to notice something big about your performance as a leader or team member. As in the example of my colleague from military college, the feedback that everyone was giving him was through their facial expressions or through their unwillingness to cooperate. These seem like some pretty obvious signs that something isn’t right, but my colleague may not have recognized them. Even if he recognized them, he probably didn’t analyze it to come to the insight that he needs to tone it down. Even if he did recognize this insight, he may have lacked the humility or the courage to accept feedback that is shocking and different from his perspective. Don’t let any of this happen to you. Feedback comes in many forms. Pay attention to details so that you can recognize them when they’re there.
Outcomes – Practice adjusting to feedback as necessary. Having recognized and analyzed all this feedback, you will find yourself wondering how you will ever improve from all of it. It can also make you feel down. However, you are lightyears ahead of people who avoid feedback entirely or don’t even recognize them in the first place. The only thing left to do is to prioritize the problems that need to be fixed, and then to actually go out and fix them. In my experience, a lot of people don’t actively try to improve their leadership skills. With this in mind, you could literally spend half a year working on improving one leadership skill and be that much further capable of leading compared to others.
The best thing about leadership skills is that you get to be a better person to the people you love and who are close to you. Last year, I spent 3 months working on my leadership skills by reflecting every night on how and when I could have been a better listener during the day. I can say with confidence that I’ve become a better son, brother, friend, and boyfriend (though I still have more progress left to make on all fronts). This in itself has been the most rewarding use of my time recently, despite the challenging work and schooling that I’ve been up to.