A Leadership Tip That Just Works: Ask For Feedback

October 12, 2022

You’re sitting at your desk when an e-mail pops up from your boss that cryptically states, “Please come to my office; we need to talk.” What’s the first thing you think?

For most people it’s, “Oh no – what did I do now!” or “Good gosh, what went wrong!” Of course, it is possible that your boss wants to praise you, ask your opinion on something, or just discuss an issue, but the vast majority of people will assume they’re being called in to be called on the carpet for something or another. This assumption causes many people to avoid feedback all together — and not just those whose bosses actually do criticize them a lot or those who are insecure about their performance.

Generalized “feedback phobia” is widespread.

This is a pity, as research clearly shows the advantage of receiving feedback on an ongoing basis. In our data, collected for more than a decade, we consistently find that leaders who ask for feedback are substantially more effective than leaders who don’t.

In a study of 51,896 executives, for example, those who ranked at the bottom 10% in asking for feedback were rated at the 15th percentile in overall leadership effectiveness. On the other hand, leaders who ranked at the top 10% were rated, on average, at the 86thpercentile in overall leadership effectiveness.

Asking for Feedback Zenger Folkman Research

Rather than being fearful of feedback, they are comfortable receiving information about their behavior from their bosses, their colleagues, and their subordinates.

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

Everyone has blind spots. There are certain characteristics most individuals just don’t see. Sometimes these characteristics are weaknesses. Many people may see and know about them, but don’t think they make much difference. In fact, they don’t even realize that people notice them. Often, there are also strengths— things they do incredibly well—but they don’t realize the leverage and power they possess. Feedback is the most instructive tool to help individuals understand others’ perceptions of themselves—and there is significant power in that process.

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.

Suggestions to Improve

  1. We have observed that the most helpful approach is to ask others for one recommendation or suggestion about how something could be improved. That something could be a presentation, a report, a process, or a project. The power of this is that it clearly signals that you are not fishing for compliments. You also are not asking for a broad appraisal of your leadership capabilities. It frames the conversation. Try a broad question like “How am I doing?” does not usually produce concrete, actionable suggestions. So, ask other people things like, “What is one thing I could have done to have an even better meeting?”
  2. Express your appreciation for the suggestions you receive.
  3. Engage an external coach to help you improve and follow up on your improvement plans.
  4. Ask to participate in a 360-degree assessment. Ask both those you feel will give you positive and corrective feedback. After receiving the feedback, identify significant weaknesses that need to be improved and strengths that need to be cultivated. Create a plan for improvement.

There are lots of people that go through life never asking for feedback. When people ask, sometimes it is something they don’t want to hear. However, how they react to the feedback is critical—don’t kill the messengers. When you do this, you will never get honest feedback again. The words to say are, “I appreciate that—tell me more.” If you don’t understand it, say, “Help me understand that.” Be aware that others tend to tell people what they want to hear. Individuals should thank others for giving honest feedback and, as you thank and reward people, they tend to give feedback more often. Encourage feedback from a variety of people—diversity is important. Involve others in your development and share your plans and goals.

– Joe Folkman

Assessments and Development Opportunities

We invite you to explore our development experience Elevating Feedback.

Offer your employees a consistent, versatile feedback framework, and create a culture that fosters greater awareness and better solutions in your organization. As part of the Elevating Feedback experience, participants learn a pattern for providing reinforcing feedback, discover the rules of engagement for redirecting feedback, and gain experience and confidence while practicing our proven feedback framework.

Watch the product preview or schedule a demo.

Additional Feedback Research

Here are some resources for other feedback studies we have done to help you better approach giving and receiving feedback.

Understanding Your Feedback Preferences

Elevating Feedback for Hybrid Work Environments

What is Your Fear of Feedback Costing You?

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