Why great leaders invite feedback and learn from it


  • August 14, 2019
  • /   Quint Studer
  • /   leadership-tips
Quint Studer discusses the importance of feedback and how it improves the health and culture of a company
Part 2 of a 3-part series on feedback

Last week’s column was about the importance of creating a feedback-focused culture. We talked about the fact that employees crave regular feedback on how they are performing, and when they don’t get it, they make all sorts of wrong assumptions—all of which are harmful to the organization. And we zeroed-in on the cornerstone of creating this culture: installing a strong evaluation system and implementing it effectively.

So now that we’ve covered giving feedback, what about the other side of the coin? How well do you receive feedback? In a healthy company, feedback flows in both directions. Good leaders are self-aware and coachable, and that means perpetually inviting feedback from others, listening to them, and learning from what they have to say. 

For many leaders, this is not easy, because sometimes the feedback may be negative and they take it personally. Maybe they feel hurt or upset, or they may even go immediately to anger and resentment. Ideally, one should take ownership of the issue or poor results that the feedback is pointing to. Only then can one take positive steps forward.

The first order of business is to move past taking things personally. Here are a few tips:

Do a self-assessment. Is the feedback accurate? Is some of it right?
If you’re not sure, find someone you trust and ask them to provide a second opinion.
Consider where the person is coming from, their motivation, and their emotional state. An angry person may lash out, a jealous person may say negative things, etc. Take in what fits and leave the rest behind. It’s possible the person is giving you negative feedback because of past interactions with you; be aware of it (and apologize if it’s called for), but don’t accept responsibility for their reaction. While we need to take ownership of our own actions, the other person must own their responses, both positive and negative. 
Be kind to yourself. We are all human beings. Of course, sometimes when we read or hear something about ourselves or others we care about, we will be hurt. This is normal, but try to keep it in perspective and look at it as an opportunity to practice forgiveness, self-care, and hopefully the pursuit of personal growth. 
Also, make sure you’re allowing people to give you feedback. I often find that leaders do not receive helpful feedback because of how they’ve handled it in the past. If we have reacted with silent hurt or anger, people will be reluctant to provide it again. Let the person know you will appreciate their feedback and can handle it. 
Great leaders create cultures that encourage people to give feedback. Adam Grant, a Wharton professor who wrote the fantastic book Originals, identified some organizations and leaders who are very successful. A common theme I noticed was that these high-performing companies had a top leader who was not only open to feedback (even when they were not in agreement), but also installed systems and behavior that created a culture where all feedback was rewarded. 
This is not easy to do. Even when a leader says, “I want your feedback,” many reports, due to past bad experiences, are reluctant to provide it. Some people were raised not to challenge someone in front of others and not to challenge someone in a higher position at all. In other cases, a report might say what a leader wants to hear in hopes of getting rewarded. 
Creating a feedback-welcoming environment requires a leader who is willing to deflate their ego and be a good student. Here are a few simple tips that may help: 
Ask questions. Make it very clear to those around you that you need, expect, and appreciate their help. Use words like “Please let me know what I am missing” or “If you were going to punch holes in this and/or identify areas of concern, what would they be?” or “If you were in my position, what would you be doing differently?” 
Play devil’s advocate once in a while. Take a position you know has flaws and see who steps up. If someone does, thank them. If not, discuss the danger of group-think and ask what steps you can take to create a safe environment for feedback. Apologize for not having done so in the past and reiterate that you are committed to this in the future. 
Use a survey tool to encourage people to give anonymous feedback. While we would love it if people felt safe to express themselves right off the bat, it takes time to create this kind of environment. The use of surveys where people can respond anonymously can be very valuable. At our companies, we conduct an employee engagement survey each year in part to make sure our leaders are creating this kind of environment for their employees. 
If you feel yourself getting emotional, hit the pause button. The more accustomed you get to receiving honest feedback, the less likely you are to take it personally. Yet we are all human, and there will be times when we do feel hurt or angry. When this happens, the best tool is the pause button. A bit of time can make the difference between responding well and responding in a way that can make things worse. I have seldom regretted pausing. I have often regretted not doing so. 
Eliminate excuses and take ownership. Being open to feedback is only half the battle. What matters more is what you do once a problem is pointed out to you. When we hear or discover things that we could have done better, often our first instinct is to get defensive and explain away the problem or rationalize why we made that decision. We often blame external circumstances or things outside of our control. All of this shifts responsibility away from us. 
Adopt a zero-tolerance policy for excuse-making for yourself and don’t allow it from others. This means committing to yourself, your leaders, and everyone in the organization that you will do what it takes to get better, and taking ownership of creating better outcomes in the future.  
When you feel yourself starting to get defensive or making an excuse, take a second to ask yourself, Should I have seen this coming? Is there any way I could have acted differently to keep this from happening, even if no one told me to do so? If the answer is yes, you have to own the mistake and commit to doing better moving forward. 
Becoming a leader who can accept feedback graciously and learn and grow from it is easier said than done. However, for you to be the best leader you can be—and for your organization to be the best it can be—it’s critical. 
Next week we will cover psychological safety—making sure people inside your organization feel comfortable speaking up and giving honest feedback. As always, thank you for reading!