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Leaders Need Feedback, Too

So why is it so hard to accept it?

Two women talking at a table in an office.

Organizations spend millions of dollars training leaders and managers on how to give feedback. Still, little else creates as much anxiety for the giver or the receiver.

That’s because most organizations are tackling the problem from the wrong end, says Sheila Heen, co-founder of Triad Consulting Group and co-author of Thanks for the Feedback (Viking/Penguin, 2014).

“In any feedback conversation, it’s really the receiver who is in charge and is in control of what they take in and whether they decide to do anything about it,” Heen says.

To truly reap the benefits of feedback, she advocates teaching people to be better receivers of such advice. And she recommends starting at the top.

“If you want to change the feedback culture in your organization, the fastest way to do that is for visible leaders in your organization to work to become better receivers,” Heen says.

She teaches business executives how to ask for—and learn from—feedback as part of a negotiation course she leads at Harvard Law School. 

Studies have linked “feedback-seeking behavior” to higher job satisfaction, greater creativity, faster adaptation in a new role and lower turnover, she says. Leaders who ask for feedback are also those ranked highest for overall effectiveness, according to research by Zenger Folkman, which provides leadership development training.

“It really is a loud signal to the organization that you think everybody has things to work on,” Heen says. Leaders should model what they value and what they expect from others.

But this isn’t easy. Learning to accept feedback requires us to wrestle two conflicting human needs: the need to learn and grow and the need to be accepted as we are. It helps to understand what triggers our defensive reactions, which can block our ability to learn.

These include:

  • Truth triggers. Do you bristle when someone offers feedback that seems unfair or untrue? If you’re told you need to be more proactive and you believe you already are, for example, ask for examples of what prompted the remark instead of getting defensive.
  • Relationship triggers. What do you think of the person giving the feedback? How do you feel she treats you? That can affect how you receive her advice. When encouraged to get feedback from another person, most people will choose someone they have a good working relationship with. However, that person might not see your rough edges. “Sometimes the best advice can come from the people who annoy you the most,” Heen says.
  • Identity triggers. How do you usually respond to feedback? How upset do you become? Once you recognize a pattern, you can challenge yourself to identify distorted thinking. Instead of hearing feedback as criticism, consider it an opportunity to learn, Heen says.

She suggests three simple ways to begin to accept and learn from feedback:

  • Ask for it. You’re less likely to get defensive when you’ve asked for the information, Heen says. But leaders should avoid asking “Do you have any feedback for me?” You’ll put subordinates on the spot. “They’re not sure how honest they’re supposed to be,” she says. Instead, try asking “What’s one thing you see me doing that gets in my own way?” Once a month, ask one person for one piece of advice. Pay attention to the themes that emerge.
  • Coach your coaches. Let others know the best way to present advice to you.
  • Engage in small experiments. During the feedback conversation, you don’t have to decide whether to accept or reject the advice. “You just have to more deeply understand it,” she says. “That takes the pressure off the conversation.” Think about it later. If you’re not sure if a suggestion would work, pick some low-risk places to practice.

“The fact that you even tried it sends a signal, too. That tells the person you actually listened,” Heen says.

Dori Meinert is senior writer/editor for HR Magazine.


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