Being middle-aged means compromising physical attributes (think wrinkles and saggy bits) for the benefits of wisdom and emotional well-being. It’s a trade-off that I’ve accepted: that despite the aching joints and crinkly skin, I can look forward to a radiant glow of self-awareness and wisdom. Ommm. So it was just a bit disconcerting to learn that experience does not equate to self-awareness. In fact, studies have shown that seeing ourselves as highly experienced can keep us from being open to feedback that doesn’t confirm the beliefs we have about ourselves and can prevent us from challenging our assumptions.
Building awareness as leaders
For those climbing the leadership ladder, this creates an anomaly. The older and more senior you become, the less likely you’ll be open to receiving feedback and the less likely others below you will give it. In one study, more experienced managers were less accurate in assessing their leadership effectiveness compared with less experienced managers. There are two possible reasons: first, by virtue of their level, senior leaders simply have fewer people above them who can provide candid feedback. Second, the more power a leader wields, the less comfortable people will be to give them constructive feedback, for fear it will hurt their careers.
However, when we see ourselves clearly, research suggests we are more confident and more creative. We make sounder decisions, build stronger relationships, and communicate more effectively. We’re less likely to lie, cheat, and steal. We are better workers who get more promotions. And we’re more-effective leaders with more-satisfied employees and more-profitable companies. No pressure.
Building a feedback culture
Giving feedback is often one of the most difficult leadership challenges to master. People want to learn and grow, at the same time we want to be respected for our work and be the best at what we do. Feedback lies at the intersection of the two. Worried that the recipient will get upset, leaders may opt for the feedback sandwich: say something nice; then say the critical feedback – what you actually want to say; then say something nice again. Or avoid feedback altogether.
Understanding the challenge for leaders, leadership training traditionally has concentrated on building the skills for giving feedback. However, recent approaches are turning this theory on it’s head. They suggest that if you want to get better at giving feedback then start asking for it instead.
Asking for feedback sets the scene for building a culture based on curiosity and openness. It helps to build the skills for giving feedback in those you lead, helping them to become more successful. It also builds empathy for others – provided you make it safe for those you lead to give you feedback. This means not over reacting, or punishing with consequences, to feedback that is difficult or surprising for you.
How to ask for feedback
Feedback can be vague and given that it is focused on the past, can fail to highlight what you can improve. To alleviate this, ask for clear and actionable feedback that is future focused e.g. what is one thing I could do differently next time?
More tips for asking for feedback are:
- Listen: carefully and without preparing a reply. Seek to understand by asking questions and try to see things from the other person’s point of view.
- Get specific: ask questions to clarify and get specific
- Acknowledge: Thank them for the feedback. Let them know you’ll take time to think it over, if needed.
- Intention: be open to hearing the feedback. Resist the urge to debate, dispute, discount or deny feedback that you don’t initially agree with and take time to think it over.
Building self-awareness means listening to feedback that you don’t always want to hear. Asking for clear, actionable feedback from those you lead, builds a culture of curiosity and openness with benefits for the organisation and the people within it.