Why leaders need to ask for feedback

No matter how well senior executives are performing at work, they all tend to dread their annual performance review. Whilst many are trained in the art of giving feedback to their teams, how do they cope when the tables are turned on them?

Receiving feedback and acting upon it is a vital ingredient in the development of leaders in business today.

A recent study from leadership development firm, Zenger Folkman,[1] found that leaders who ask for feedback are substantially more effective than leaders who don’t. Leaders who ranked in the bottom 10% in asking for feedback were rated at the 15th percentile in leadership effectiveness. Conversely, those in the top 10% of asking for feedback from their employees were ranked in the 86th percentile in overall leadership ability.

Asking for feedback can give leaders vital knowledge and understanding of how they need to improve their performance. However, it seems that few people really know how to react to the feedback they are given. The reasons for this are often down to low self-confidence. If someone has gone for a big promotion only to be rejected, do they really want to know why they failed to get the job?

However, it is crucial for executives to find out where they went wrong to discover what they could do better in the future. No matter how senior a person is, it is important for them to ask for feedback post interview or when they have an annual review because everyone has blind spots.

Sometimes feedback can be vague so it is important to ask the person providing it to clarify what they are saying using specific examples.

Executives need to ask the person providing the feedback what they could have done differently. This will not only show they are confident and open, but most importantly, willing to learn from experiences and understand what behaviours they may be presenting that make others form an impression.

It is important for business leaders to take feedback too personally or be defensive about it, although it could be validated by asking for further feedback from other people. It can also be helpful to ask the person giving the feedback for their advice.

People often dismiss feedback because they don’t like what they hear or it’s not in line with the view they have of themselves. However, being open to feedback, whether it is positive or negative, will enable a person to improve their self-awareness and adjust their behaviour accordingly. ÔÇ¿ÔÇ¿A good example is one particular client of mine who was told she needed a new haircut. She was understandably upset that her hairstyle could affect her chances of promotion. She reflected on the feedback and realised that probably she looked too young, and although she could not do anything about her looks, she could behave in a more serious manner. Sometimes it's important to look beyond the comment, and understand the overall message.ÔÇ¿ Often people don't like giving feedback because they fear they may hurt or upset the person receiving it. In anonymous written feedback, people tend to be more honest as they are further removed from the situation. Similarly, if people request written feedback they will have more time to consider what questions to ask. Face to face it may be more difficult to be "curious" without being defensive, however, it gives the opportunity to ask qualifying or clarifying questions.

One way leaders can maximise the potential of face to face feedback is to give the person conducting the review the questions in advance to give them time to think them over properly. The questions should not be vague but targeted at relevant areas such as, ‘What’s one thing I can do to improve X?’.

It is worth bearing in mind that asking for feedback is only useful if there is a genuine intent to act on it and for executives to take action to work on any areas for improvement highlighted in the feedback.  Further feedback sessions are recommended too, to ensure the self-improvement measures put in place have been successful a few months further down the line.

Adobe, a company of 11,000 employees, believes so strongly in the importance of feedback that it has replaced its traditional performance management system with a new simple but effective process. Either an employee or a manager may request a “check in” every three months. Before the meeting occurs a group of employees provides feedback on the employee’s performance.

The results form the basis of a conversation about performance improvement and the goal is to make coaching and developing a continuous, collaborative process between managers and employees. Since rolling out the new approach worldwide Adobe have experienced a 30% reduction in voluntary turn over.

Being able to ask for honest feedback is one of the hallmarks of a great leader. Whether choosing to adopt an official ‘check in’ system like Adobe’s or taking a more ad hoc approach, feedback is an important tool in enabling leaders to be successful in their roles.

[1] Zenger Folkman carried out a study of 51,896 executives in December 2013