6 Surprising Insights about Leaders and Feedback

August 26, 2022

6 Surprising Insights About Leaders and Feedback

It is gratifying to witness practical new research on a topic that has been around for centuries. Feedback is a topic one can constantly research, analyze, and implement new practices. Some of these new insights on feedback run contrary to prevailing beliefs. Others challenge bedrock assumptions that have grown up with the modern conceptions of organizations.

Here are six surprising insights about leaders and feedback:

1. Feedback is not governed by gravity.

At its best, feedback is flowing upward and downward. Our evidence is simply this. While leaders who give feedback constructively and with empathy are rated higher than those who don’t, the leaders who receive the highest marks from direct reports are those who ask for feedback about themselves. The benefits of this are obvious. By asking for feedback, leaders are setting the example for what their direct reports should ideally be doing. The leader can be a role model of how feedback can be accepted.

2. Asking for feedback, regardless of your position, completely changes the dynamics of the interaction.

When someone says, “I have some feedback for you,” the most common reaction is for the amygdala portion of the brain to take over. The brain usually interprets these words as an attack. A common response is defensiveness.

But, if someone asks for a suggestion on how to do something more effectively, it becomes an entirely different conversation. The person asking is in control and has sent the signal that they wish to be constantly improving.

3. Cultures are enhanced when communication flows freely in all directions. 

For example, I was once coaching an executive who had received below-average scores on “seeking and acting on feedback”. I suggested to the executive that he actively ask for feedback from his direct reports. He reported that one leader observed, “I’ve worked in organizations for 25 years, and this is the first time an executive has ever asked for my opinion about something he had done.” The outcome was freer, warmer interactions.

4. There are two quite distinct types of feedback; most leaders are wrong about which kind has the greatest benefit.

Type 1 – I’ll label reinforcing feedback. This is recognizing what people do well, praising effort and attainment, and emphasizing the positive. Type 2– I’ll label redirecting feedback. This points out to someone what they’ve failed to do, what they’ve done poorly or not done on time.

The latest research shows that while many people think they would benefit from redirecting feedback, in practice, they far prefer reinforcing feedback. It is more likely to change their behavior because it elevates their mood and aspirations.

To research this insight, my colleague Joe Folkman and I combined self-assessment data from the “Feedback Preferences” assessment with 360-degree evaluations from other raters. The “Feedback Preferences” self-assessment asked managers for their preference to give others positive (reinforcing) feedback or negative (redirecting) feedback. In this analysis, we divided managers into two groups based on their preferences. We found that 533 managers had a strong preference for giving reinforcing feedback, and 805 had a stronger preference for giving redirecting feedback. As you can see in the graph below, those leaders with a stronger preference for giving redirecting or negative feedback were rated at the 42nd percentile, while those preferring giving reinforcing or positive feedback were rated at the 50th percentile.

5. The process of a leader delivering redirecting feedback to direct reports does not improve the direct report’s performance.

It is no secret that many managers are quite comfortable delivering redirecting feedback to others. These leaders are highly likely to have low scores on “empathy,” while those who prefer giving reinforcing feedback have higher scores on empathy. This means that the leaders most comfortable giving redirecting feedback are the ones who will probably do it most poorly.

Large “meta” studies have shown that 38% of all feedback delivered actually harmed the individual and their performance, versus having a neutral or positive effect.

In contrast, the leader delivering reinforcing feedback had a positive impact on the receiver’s behavior.

6. When a leader delivers redirecting feedback to a direct report, it also diminishes the performance and behavior of the “giver” along with the receiver.

We have known for some time that the manager responsible for giving a less than favorable performance review was equally, if not more, uncomfortable than the recipient. In addition, the measurement of cortisol levels in the bloodstream spikes upward, presumably influenced by the level of empathy the “giver” possesses.

Did any of these insights change your perception of feedback or your preference for it? Leaders who continually challenge their feedback practices and preferences are the ones who can continually grow and help others to do so as well.

—Jack Zenger

(This article first appeared in Forbes)

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