The Feedback Loophole: Why Leaders Don’t Ask For and Receive The Feedback They Need To Hear

June 18, 2018

By: John Sandahl

As leaders, we may not feel a strong compulsion to “get feedback” on our own performance. The process is time consuming, for one; we’ve already been hired or promoted to leadership because of a strong track record of performance; and it’s also difficult to trust the feedback we might receive.  The “Kiss up and Kick down” mentality thrives in corporate environments and tends to skew feedback. It can be hard for an employee to give direct feedback to their supervisor, and when they do it’ll likely be given with all sorts of sugar or spin. 

Just because good, honest feedback is difficult to get doesn’t absolve leaders of the need to seek it out, however. If we want others to improve, we need to demonstrate that we can and will improve ourselves. And to do that we need to know what we’re doing wrong or might do better.

Want to get more and better feedback? Start by asking yourself these three questions:

  1. Are you asking for feedback more often than giving it?

It can be so tempting to just assume that silence = perfection.  If we weren’t doing our jobs well as leaders, we’d hear about it from team members, right? Not necessarily. We shouldn’t assume that our level of comfort at giving feedback is the same as everyone else’s. Just because I’m comfortable giving feedback to my direct report does not mean she feels equally comfortable giving it to me. There is, after all, more at stake for her in criticizing up the organizational hierarchy.

The solution for leaders is to ask for feedback early and often—even when you imagine it might be hard for others to have much to say. I worked with a company where the process involved forced feedback sessions after each day’s work with a team.  Sometimes this generated meaningful and important feedback, and sometimes it didn’t. But the opportunity was there, and that conveyed the message that leaders were bent on improving themselves, not just their team members.

The more senior I got in an organization, and/or the more tired I was, the more often I’d find a reason to only halfheartedly ask for feedback, or I’d ask for feedback on something I knew couldn’t or shouldn’t be changed. Don’t fall into this trap. Ask for feedback on the decisions, actions, or skills you feel least certain about.

The more you ask for sincere feedback and respond to it meaningfully, the more you’ll get of it. And the more likely your coworkers will be receptive to the feedback you give them.

2. When receiving feedback are you only getting the “positives”? 

Another common mistake as a leader is overhearing only the “positive” feedback and/or subtly giving the message that you only want to hear the good stuff.  Avoid this by insisting that your direct report gives you at least one thing you can do better.  Don’t let them get away with just a pat on the back.  You can also help tee this up by letting them know before you start working with them that you’ll be expecting them to come up with at least one thing you could work on afterwards.

3. Are you probing enough to get to the root message?

You’ve asked for feedback and gotten something that is meant to be constructive but that just feels impossible to use.  This situation is a good opportunity for your brain to convince you to file this feedback away as “unhelpful” or otherwise not worth paying attention to and, therefore, to stop asking this person for feedback.  But it’s very likely the giver has some perspective you’re missing.  Take the time to probe and find out what’s at the root of this comment instead of writing the comment and the person off.

Just because you’re not getting critical feedback doesn’t mean you’re not deserving of it. Avoid the Feedback Loophole by actively asking for sincere feedback, providing multiple and safe opportunities to do so, probing deeply for the root message, and by responding in a way that indicates you’ve heard the feedback and are working to improve.


By: John Sandahl

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