How can you get feedback as a leader, when others are reluctant to give it?

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) did a study on the most important leadership capabilities and they found that self-awareness came out on top. The best leaders know themselves cold. This is more important than any other skills like decision making, strategy, business or technical competency, and more.

Did you notice that the more you got promoted the better your ideas became? Or maybe your jokes became even funnier or you lost some weight? Did you change? Well in your case it may be true, but what we find is that people’s comfort level with giving a more senior person feedback decreases as they move up the ladder.  In other words, the higher up we go the less we know.           

How do we get that self-awareness or data on ourselves when people are reluctant to give it, at exactly the time we need it most?

Here are three lessons to get more and better feedback:

Lesson # 1: is to ASK for SPECIFIC feedback.  I was coaching someone on self-awareness and she said that she is constantly asking, “How did I do?” and all she hears is “great job”.  That’s not very helpful is it? Instead of, “How did I do?” Ask, “How did I do at presenting the budget numbers in today’s staff meeting? Or, I am concerned that people were checking-out during the presentation. Or, What can I do to make it more engaging? Or, if I could focus on developing one thing as a leader, what would that be?”

Lesson # 2 comes from Sheryl Sandberg, COO of a company called Facebook. What I learned about her as a leader is that she would not let you leave her office or go away unless you told her SOMETHING she could improve on. And that’s Sheryl Sandberg a great leader. So no, don’t lock people into a conference room. But as leaders give people time, be patient, but be FIRM in getting that feedback.

Lesson # 3 is about, how we REACT to that feedback. Sometimes leaders don’t ask for feedback because they are afraid of what they are going to hear. Or they think it makes them look weak. It’s quite the opposite; it sends the message that I take leadership seriously. If you get defensive, or start questioning intentions then you are going to shut down the feedback. A tip here is to replace that feeling of defensiveness with curiosity.  Ask “tell me more about that?” or, Ask questions about what the new behavior or the change should look like, and the impact it will have. And finally thank them for the feedback and ask them to help hold you accountable to these new behaviors.

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