How Your Openness to Feedback Impacts Your Performance

Boundaries for Leaders

Business management expert Ken Blanchard says that feedback is the "breakfast of champions." Indeed, learning how we are doing and how to do better are keys to great performance. In fact, the best performance situations are when we are getting the most immediate feedback, which is from the task itself, as flow researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has found.

The problem tends to occur at the moment when we actually get the feedback, either from other people or from the outcomes themselves. That is when our leadership character shows itself. While Blanchard gets it exactly right about the kind of breakfast we need, truth is that not everyone has the same appetite for breakfast. Some people wake up and really want it, while it makes others sick to their stomachs. Some are allergic to feedback. They set boundaries against constructive criticism.

Brain research shows that feedback can do funny things to us if we see it as a danger or a put-down. We go into the "moving away" or "moving against" mode of fight-or-flight. The brain gets biochemically goofy. That is why you see people get so defensive and go to great lengths to fight any feedback. But remember, fight-or-flight only comes when there is a perceived danger. Therein is the rub. If we see feedback as dangerous, we will bristle and fight it. But if we perceive feedback as an unexpected windfall, like winning the lottery, we will seek it out and be open to it, and sometimes even pay for it. That is what good character does . . . it hungers for feedback.

To be the best you can be, you must develop a hunger for feedback and see it as one of the best gifts you can get. It is part of being an open system and has incredible value not only to you but also to your people.

I was conducting a leadership offsite where the executive team members responsible for the agenda had asked me to try to maneuver the conversation toward a topic they all wanted to discuss but didn't want to state explicitly on the agenda. After a lot of discussion about why I had to "maneuver" it that way instead of just intentionally designing it that way, the team confessed that their real goal was to sneak some tough feedback about the CEO onto the agendabut in a way that would not throw him off or make him defensive. They feared that if the agenda were openly designed to give him feedback, it would never work. They hoped I would be able to "go there if the mood was right." How sneaky, a lot of pressure, and not a lot of hope for success, I thought. I told them I understood their concerns but that I had a different plan to get the CEO into the right zone.

So at the beginning of the meeting, I explained the "physics of leadership" and the importance of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, mentioned above. I explained why it is important for senior leaders to be an open system and model receiving feedback well in organizations, and I emphasized that being open to feedback is a key indicator not only of leadership aptitude but also character. Good character welcomes feedback and foolish character fights it off.

I don't know whether it was these comments of the moodor whether the team had just misread the CEObut when the time came for "saying things that are hard to say, but necessary for the good vision," one of the members of the executive team had the courage to wade in. He told the CEO that there were some things that they needed from him that they were not getting, and that there were some things in his leadership style that was leaving the team and the organization with some gaps in performance. I watched and held my breath, waiting for the whole retreat to blow up before my eyes. (I love these moments, though. They can be some of the most powerful.)

The CEO listened as this tough feedback came at him in front of his whole team. And he did what the great leaders do: He received it, and he thanked them for it.

They looked stunned. But what was amazing was the discussion that followed. The CEO talking about his own passions, and the strengths and weaknesses that made him lead that way. His candor broke the logjam, and the team was able to come together and offer ways to help the CEO deal with his challenges. What made it happen was the CEO's receptivity to hearing what his stakeholders had to sayhis willingness to embrace it and make changes. And part of what made him receptive was hearing from me, an outsider, that it was more than okit was normal and even desirableto hear and receive feedback. Now, four year later, the team still refers to that moment as "the retreat where we got honest." It was the beginning of a shift in the entire culture, ignited by the CEO's openness to feedback.

What is your appetite for feedback? Do you get defensive or receptive?


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