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Why leaders shouldn’t fear feedback


If you are being truly honest with yourself, how ready are you to hear honest feedback from the people you manage and lead? Not platitudes, not half-hearted suggestions for improvements, but real, unmoderated and truthful opinion. Are you confident that they would say complimentary things or quietly terrified of a withering assessment?


The concept of feedback is understandably nerve-wracking for many – principally because it can challenge the carefully constructed self-image a person creates for themselves. Feedback, whether it’s positive or something less so, can fracture the understanding we have of how others think of us, and can leave a person questioning the approach they have taken and the strategies they are yet to implement.


The fear, I would suggest, is that of being left exposed and somewhat vulnerable when you push yourself forward and actually ask for feedback. Even the most go-getting, entrepreneurial and adventurous of leaders might feel a touch nervous in the cold, hard spotlight of other peoples’ opinions.


There is also a not-uncommon perception from within that leaders seeking feedback are somehow revealing a weakness in the way they operate. An ever-so-slightly needy “am I doing okay?” that suggests a lack of confidence or an unseemly desire for affirmation and praise. It can alternatively be perceived as primarily motivated by rank over-confidence – perhaps coming from a belief that nobody could possibly find fault in the sterling leadership and direction they are providing.


Neither perception is healthy nor much rested in reality. Both are formed around a very fixed idea that a leader must act decisively, with very little in the way of self-doubt. This is not wrong per se: a leader should be confident when making decisions, but it does not need to come complete with a shedding of all measure of self-awareness or a readiness for introspection. In fact, asking for feedback should be thought of as a critical part of a leader’s development.


Logically, you are never going to learn very much if you only rely on your own perception of how you are doing. The vast majority of people are likely to be fairly easy-going “soft markers” if left to assess their own capabilities, and even those more critical of their own performance are likely to look to external contributing factors as much as genuinely looking inwards. Getting the feedback of others is really the only way to balance this tendency towards natural self-praise.


This is why many professionals will be familiar with personal development techniques that aim to compile the opinions of the various stakeholders in your professional life – your reports, your managers, your peers – and then present them back to an individual as tightly-focused and hopefully-helpful feedback.


While exceedingly useful, leaders don’t necessarily need to wait for these more formalised feedback approaches to occur to their organisation’s HR departments and consultants. Far better to take the initiative themselves and help the conversation along. For example, star of a million LinkedIn shares, Richard Branson, has reported actively seeking the opinions of customers and other stakeholders, keeping a notebook of feedback which has a direct bearing on his leadership approach for improving company performance.


Or there’s the example of former GE CEO, Jack Welch, who helped members of his board of directors gather their own “intelligence” on his leadership performance by encouraging them to meet his executives in less formal visits where he wasn’t present. By inviting them to gain a more unfiltered view of his leadership in action, his board was able to provide feedback with real substance.


Obviously, the need to ask for feedback can be easier to say than to do – even where a leader can, themselves, surmount their trepidation to invite opinion (and, by extension, possible criticism), they must also find an approach that doesn’t alienate or intimidate the people they speak to. Faced with critiquing their boss, many people will be naturally cautious or outright suspicious, and will be taciturn to offer useful feedback.


However, if you recognise that it is only fear – and largely irrational fear at that – that holds back both parties from making the process a success, it is certainly possible to get past this discomfort. If a leader demonstrates genuine openness to the process – helping to convince their report that they aren’t “out to get them” – and a report returns this show of trust, a leader can benefit from a genuine understanding of how they are truly performing as a leader.


Ahmad Badr is Chief Executive Officer of Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group (ADUKG).


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