How to manage feedback?

The majority of leaders want to continue to improve and find ways to be more effective. However, they very rarely receive feedback which will help them to improve and become even better leaders. A lot of the time if they are doing well, leaders are told they are doing a great job and to keep up the good work. Whilst this is always nice to hear, it is completely unhelpful from the point of view of growth and development.

Research on effective learning carried out by Hattie and Timperley of the University of Auckland, found that people need three things in order to improve performance. These are :

  1. a clear goal
  2. a genuine desire to achieve such goal
  3. feedback which outlines what they are doing well as well as what they are not.

However, most of the feedback received by leaders is unfortunately not helpful. Quite often the feedback is extremely vague, infrequent or unrelated to specific behaviours and because of this, leaders tend not to be very proactive around looking for it. Positive feedback is undervalued and low-quality feedback isn’t useful. Neuroscience also tells us that negative feedback which is poorly delivered can actually cause physical pain. Leaders will find it almost impossible to grow if they do not have clear performance targets as well as data which measures how far away from achieving these targets they are. However feedback, when delivered considerately, can provide leaders with the information they need to grow and become more effective.

There are a number of steps you can take if you want to receive feedback which you need in order to improve your leadership:

1-Build a psychologically safe environment: Giving feedback can be risky. In order to increase the chances of your colleagues taking this risk, demonstrate to them that their honesty will not be met with negative consequences. You can do this through showing vulnerability, being curious and rewarding honesty, before you even ask for the feedback. When you take the time to actually listen to your colleagues and explore their different perspectives you are rewarding their honesty. Admitting your mistakes or weaknesses are also good ways to demonstrate your vulnerability and openness.

2- Ask skilfully: If you outstraight ask ‘what feedback do you have for me’ you will very rarely receive a useful response. You should instead ask about specific events, personal impact (How did you feel when a sent that email), worrisome patters (How often during meetings do I interrupt people) and recommendations (What could I do to help build my relationship with the team?)

3 – Ask for both the positive and the negative: When leaders actually want to improve, they tend to just want the negative feedback. However positive feedback is also useful as it lets them know what they don’t need to work on. This also gives leaders enough information to understand what they are doing effectively and increases their motivation to repeat those behaviours.

4 – Give your full attention whilst receiving feedback: When speaking with colleagues about feedback, make sure all distractions such as phones and laptops are removed so that you can give 100% concentration to your colleague and the conversation. Even if you are not looking at your phone, just having it present has a negative impact on relationships and reduces a person’s ability to connect with other people. Listen carefully to what your colleague is telling you and resist the urge to evaluate how accurate the message is.

5- Don’t Debate: If your colleague is giving you some feedback which you don’t agree with, try to be self aware enough to realise how you are feeling, but do not challenge your colleague on this. If you start debating, it will look as though you are being defensive and not open to receiving feedback. This will have a negative impact in the future if you are looking for some more feedback as nobody will want to help you.

6 – Own your reactions: Once you have received some feedback you may feel confused, happy, angry or frustrated. You need to recognise that these reactions are about you not the colleague who you spoke with. If you asked a colleague for feedback and they were kind and brave enough to give it to you, it is your responsibility to explore your reactions. Instead of blaming you colleague, be curious about your own reactions, ask yourself questions like ‘why am I really angry’, ‘what about this feedback is confusing me’ etc.

7 – Show gratitude: Say thank you in a way which communicates sincere appreciation. If you have heard something in this conversation which is helpful, the colleague giving you feedback has probably spent a significant amount of time reviewing your performance and ways through which they could thoughtfully share it with you. This person took a risk by being honest with you so it is important that you let them know how much you really value both the effort they put in and the courage the showed being honest.

8 – Reflect: Once you have collected the information you need, it is important to take some time to reflect on what you have heard. By thinking through what the feedback means you can learn from it and then decide what area you need to work on, what parts to discount and what areas need deeper understanding. It helps to think about your development areas and what you have heard from other people.

9 – Plan of action: Everything that has come before this step has prepared you to make a plan and execute it. Pick one or two competencies that you want to improve and be clear about what an ‘improvement’ actually looks like. You then need to take into account the steps which will be required for you to learn and assume that new behaviour. By making a plan and actually following through, you are also showing those who gave you feedback that you are taking their information on board and are serious about improving.

10 – Maintain progress and share updates: In order for new behaviours to become habits, you need to repeat them for at least 2 months. If you return to the colleagues who gave you feedback and tell them what it is you are doing differently, you will give them an opportunity to see you as a leader who is committed to development, a reason to start changing their perspectives and confirmation that they were heard and appreciated.

The best leaders constantly want to learn. This constant pursuit of information is what sets them apart. Getting feedback can be difficult but it is necessary. It is not always easy to talk through personal development issues with a colleague and often leaders benefit from coaching.

Porter, J (2019). How Leaders Can Get Honest, Productive Feedback [online]

Hattie, J. Timperley, H. (2007). The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research. Vol 77:1 pp81-112.

Fisher, N. (2015). Rejection And Physical Pain Are The Same To Your Brain [online]

Edmondson, A. (2011). Psychological Safety, Trust, and Learning in Organizations: A Group-level Lens. Trust and Distrust in Organizations: Dilemmas and Approaches. [Online]