According to research on effective learning, to improve performance, people need three things:
- A clear goal
- A genuine desire to achieve that goal
- Feedback that indicates what they are doing well and what they are not doing well
Unfortunately, the feedback many leaders receive is not helpful. It’s often infrequent, vague, or unrelated to specific behaviors — and as a result, leaders tend to be less proactive about getting more of it. Low-quality feedback is not useful, positive feedback is undervalued, and negative feedback delivered unskillfully can actually cause physical pain.
Without clear performance targets and data measuring how close or far they are from reaching them, leaders will continue to find it difficult to grow and improve. When delivered thoughtfully, however, feedback can provide leaders with the actionable data they need to become more effective.
If you want to get the feedback that is necessary to improve your leadership, there are a few steps you can take.
Build and maintain a psychologically safe environment.
Sharing feedback is often interpersonally risky. To increase the likelihood of your colleagues taking that risk with you, show them that their honesty won’t be met with negative repercussions. You can do this before you ask for feedback by being curious, rewarding candor, and showing vulnerability. Being curious starts with having the right mindset, or believing that you have something useful to learn. It is demonstrated by asking your teammates open-ended questions that you really don’t know the answers to: “What could go wrong if we try this?” When you listen to and genuinely explore your colleague’s different, and possibly risky, perspectives — even if you disagree with them — you are rewarding their candor. Acknowledging your weaknesses or mistakes along the way are great ways to be open and vulnerable.
Ask for feedback skillfully.
Asking “What feedback do you have?” rarely elicits a useful response. Instead, ask about specific events (“What did you hear when I shared my strategy?”), worrisome patterns (“How often do I interrupt people in meetings?”), personal impact (“How did it feel to you when I sent that email?”), and lastly, recommendations (“What can I do to help build my relationship with Priya?”).
Request both positive and negative data.
Clients tell me all the time that they just want to hear “the bad stuff” when it comes to feedback. What they fail to appreciate is that positive feedback that targets a specific behavior is useful. It tells them what they don’t need to work on, and increases their motivation to focus on the behaviors that they do. For clarity, positive feedback is not the same as praise. Praise tells us someone is happy with us and thinks we are performing well. Praise sounds like: “Nice job!”; “You were great in that meeting.”; “Killer presentation!” While it feels good, praise does not give us enough information to understand what we are doing effectively so that we can repeat the behavior.