Feedback – the missing link


Know the quickest way to get friends to shut up? Ask them for feedback. I did a piece of leftfield writing a while ago, which I knew was weak, but wanted to hear from people I trusted where they felt it needed improving. Deafening silence.
We love giving positive feedback. Nothing is more cheering and encouraging than praise – for the giver and the receiver. But when the news is bad…
Same in the office. Feedback is an essential development tool, a gift (yes, it’s a gift!) we build on to grow as people and leaders as well as to judge how we are doing. Much has been written about how leaders should give this feedback, but one of the true qualities of a leader is how much they seek out and listen to their own feedback in turn. Yet as we rise up the food chain, fewer and fewer people are ready, willing or able to offer this until suddenly it’s gone.
Marshall Goldsmith’s influential book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, shows how it’s exactly the kind of feedback that you get less of that is the kind of feedback you most need – where you should change your approach, where what you’re doing is not working so well, where you’re unnecessarily rubbing noses the wrong way, etc.
As one of Kolb’s natural divergers, I thrive on new ideas, trying them out and constantly adapting as necessary. But this requires feedback, a little nudge to show when the limit has been reached and a new tack is necessary. If feedback is not forthcoming, then people like us do not get the full picture, driving everyone crazy as we push and push till something happens…
Leaders in the C-suite might ask their reports for their comments, but they’ll be lucky if they get more than platitudes – even with 360 exercises. Indeed, the only clue here typically is in trying to determine what was not said, the hidden message behind the careful choice of words.  It takes a lot for a report to stand up to their leader and offer genuine feedback, particularly if it’s not 100% positive.
This is especially true in an ascriptive culture where leaders are assumed to have all the answers. In such a status-conscious culture, leaders are rarely questioned without strong loss of face on both sides. Indeed, it can be seen as a sign of weakness for a leader to request feedback on how they are doing. The leader looking for consensus or buy-in by asking for input can instead be viewed as indecisive and unconfident.
All of these reasons lead many senior leaders to executive coaching. Relatively free from cultural influence and fear of repercussions by nature of the role, the coach usually represents the only route to objective and clear feedback. In achievement-oriented cultures, upward or peer mentoring can also work when there are explicit roles and agreement from all sides.
And, to continue the Marshall Goldsmith theme, how about feedforward? Positive suggestions to improve for the future. He makes a great point – we can’t change the past. We can change the future.
And meanwhile, the one good thing about asking friends for feedback is that you know where they live…

About Julian King

Julian King is an international HR consultant and certified executive coach with a keen interest in intercultural matters.