Saying you want feedback is one thing. The willingness to receive it is something else.
Research has shown that leaders who ask for feedback are significantly more effective than leaders who don’t ask for it. Leaders who ranked at the bottom 10% in asking for feedback were rated at the 15th percentile in overall leadership effectiveness. In contrast, leaders who ranked at the top 10% in asking for feedback were rated, on average, at the 86th percentile in effectiveness. The ability to genuinely ask for, listen to, and act on feedback is crucial for leadership success. It appears that being open and willing to receive feedback from others is an essential skill for effective leaders.
Setting up a feedback session is just the first step in the process. Leaders then have to be able to create the conditions for open, honest dialogue. Otherwise, the feedback session may fail miserably.
Sam, the head of a local school, is one example. Warm, outgoing, and personable, Sam set up exit interviews with the parents at the end of the year. She told the parents she wanted to find out what the school could be doing better in the future.
Along with Sam, the school brought in one of the teachers, as well as a learning specialist (Linda) to serve as the facilitator for the process. Nine parents attended the first exit interview. The meeting was scheduled to last one hour.
Linda kicked things off. She began by sharing her background and what the process would look like. Next, she invited Sam to speak about her hopes for the interviews. Sam also spoke at length.
By the time Linda and Sam finished speaking, 30 of the 60 minutes was already used up. Halfway through, and no parent had uttered a word yet.
That’s when things got interesting. For as personable as she is, Sam quickly demonstrated a lack of emotional intelligence. As parents shared their feedback, Sam got defensive. She was unable to allow parents to express themselves and finish their ideas. For each issue brought up, Sam was quick to justify why things were done the way they were. She’d say things like, “That’s the way things work in schools”, or “I’ve worked at a lot of other schools—they have the same problems we do here.” It was as if through these responses, Sam wanted the parents to share her reality, rather than to hear and learn from their experience.
Ironically, Sam would have been better served by doing less. In this exit interview format, she would have done just fine if she just listened until the end of each comment, and said, “Thank you for your feedback. We hear your concerns.” But she just couldn’t do it. In fact, the more Sam justified, the less the parents wanted to contribute. Sam single-handedly shut down the conversation. She sucked all the trust out of the room.
Towards the end of the hour, one of the parents asked, “What are the next steps? How will you be following up with us regarding our concerns?”
Sam, Linda and the teacher all gave each other blank stares. It seemed that none of them had ever considered this question.
The parents left the meeting disappointed, de-motivated, and disheartened. And these were the volunteers do were willing to show up to share feedback in the first place! In a single hour, Sam had created a huge credibility and engagement issue with some of her most important stakeholders.
Sam’s aversion to feedback is not unique. However, as the leader, she’s in the position to create a culture of feedback. Sam’s actions send signals to the whole school—teachers, staff, parents, students—as to what will be the norm for honest conversations. If Sam just goes through the motions, it’s more than just a gigantic waste of time: it’s a missed opportunity.
Feedback is the key to improvement and motivation. Leaders who fake it do so at their own (and their organization’s) peril.
How have you seen leaders fake feedback? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.