If You Only Take One Piece of Leadership Advice, It Should Be This
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With 2018 soon coming to a close, many of us will re-encounter that familiar time of year: the professional performance review cycle. Whether your company conducts assessments annually, quarterly or adopts a real-time approach to feedback, we can all agree that reviews are often anxiety-inducing. Early in my career, I walked into plenty of conference rooms with my stomach in knots, anticipating the worst from my annual performance review -- for no good reason at all. In fact, after each and every conversation, I emerged better informed, more self-aware and even more motivated to do my very best work. Instead of looking forward to those discussions as opportunities to advance my own development -- the way I approach them today -- I was suffering from a major fear of feedback.
Related: 50 Rules for Being a Great Leader
Soliciting constructive feedback remains one of the biggest indicators of future success. A study by Zenger Folkman found that people most willing to ask for and receive feedback had leadership effectiveness scores in the 90th percentile, versus the bottom 10 percent of those willing to ask for feedback, whose leadership scores landed in only the 12th percentile. The 2017 State of the American Workplace report by Gallup affirms this idea, stating that "employees are more likely to learn and grow when they receive immediate feedback that is specific, targeted at their development, and able to be put into practice right away." Over time and with maturity, I came to learn that receiving feedback from others is not only one of the greatest perks of any job but also a reliable way to accelerate one's career trajectory.
Feedback does not just begin and end with regular performance discussions you have with your manager, though. How often have you, as a leader, stepped back and taken the time to ask your team, cross-functional partners or peers how they experience you? Being open to the idea that feedback is a two-way street -- and that the individuals around you could offer insight after your next big presentation, strategy workshop or a team meeting -- could change your entire approach.
I want to be clear that simply asking for feedback is never enough -- and it can be completely useless if you are not prepared to receive it. Think back to any conversation, personal or professional, where someone may have shared a less-than-positive perspective about something you did or said. This kind of interaction can be extremely uncomfortable; often more so when the critique is delivered in the familiar "praise sandwich" format, where most people fail to hear the good and over-rotate to focus on the bad. Tough feedback can sting. If not received in the correct way, it can even cause people to reshape their informal networks in the workplace: one Harvard Business School study found that employees who received negative feedback might even go so far as to sever relationships with the feedback-givers altogether.
Once we have recognized the importance of feedback, how can we set up an environment where we are genuinely receptive to the good, bad, and even the ugly? I always go back to three tried-and-true ways whenever I am preparing myself to receive feedback:
- Be vulnerable.
- Stay unemotional.
- Seek out the truth.
First, in order to encourage useful and specific feedback, I focus on practicing vulnerability. This means that I might start the conversation with a piece of constructive feedback I've received in the past: "Do you think I spoke too much in that meeting? I have heard that from a few other people -- and I am actively trying to work on it -- so I'm wondering if you experienced it, too." Sharing this example accomplishes a few things. It can help the other person understand why I want their feedback (to improve) and, ideally, establishes that I am aware of and committed to working on the issue.
Hopefully, at this point, the person feels safe enough to share their perspective. So, what if they tell me that, yes, I did actually speak too much in that meeting? Now is the perfect time to keep it unemotional. You might be thinking: Doesn't it hurt a little? Sure. We are humans, not robots. When scientists studied how the body reacts when recalling a recent "social rejection" or experiencing physical pain, they discovered that the two separate incidents activated the same areas of the brain. We know that hearing the tough stuff will hurt -- possibly as much as being physically wounded -- but, ideally, we are asking for feedback in the spirit of personal growth. Acknowledging that personal development can be painful helps break through our raw emotion to re-focus attention on seeking out the truth, or kernel of insight, in any feedback we receive.
Today, I have created a habit of ending all of my one-on-one meetings by asking if the person has feedback for me. By seeking out constructive perspectives on a more regular basis -- making this an everyday practice rather than a once-a-year milestone -- I have effectively removed everything about the process that makes it so intimidating. I remind myself to be vulnerable, stay unemotional and commit to seeking out the truth in what someone is trying to tell me. The added benefit? Encouraging a culture of real-time feedback has helped foster more open, productive conversations across our team, demonstrating that there is always room for individual growth at every level in the workplace.