Want To Be An Amazing Leader? Ask For Feedback.

Posted on October 31, 2020

When was the last time your boss asked you to give them some feedback on how they could improve?  If your boss is like most managers, you’re probably thinking “I can’t remember the last time they asked me for my perspective on their performance.”  This lack of feedback is a big reason why most people in leadership positions are not strong leaders.

Leadership researchers Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman found that leaders who requested feedback the least (in the bottom 10%) were ranked at the 15th percentile in overall leadership effectiveness.  On the other hand, leaders who requested feedback the most (among the top 10%) were ranked at the 86th percentile in leadership effectiveness.  Folkman concluded “The best leaders… ask more people for feedback and they ask for feedback more often.”

Requesting feedback is quite possibly the single most impactful thing a leader (or anyone for that matter) can do to improve their performance.  Based on my consulting work, I estimate that 90% of workplace problems would disappear if everyone in the organization systematically requested feedback from multiple sources on a regular basis and received it with a desire to improve.  Of all the ways requesting feedback reduces problems and improves performance, here are three of the most impactful.

  1. Increases Mutual Respect. Regardless of how you may initially feel about someone, your respect for them immediately ticks upward the moment they say to you “I value your perspective.  Where do you see that I can improve?”
  2. Improves Dialogue and Understanding. We come to a lot of inaccurate conclusions and make a lot of poor decisions based on assumptions about our own performance and other people’s intentions.  Requesting feedback initiates real dialogue like nothing else.
  3. Enables Continuous Improvement. We cannot improve what we cannot see.  And we don’t see a lot of what can be improved for the simple reason that we don’t ask.

Why We Need Feedback

Our unconscious brain knows something that our conscious brain often forgets: confident people generally perform better than insecure people.  When we think we have a good chance at succeeding, we tend to try harder and persist longer.

Because confidence is key to survival, we have developed several security mechanisms to protect our fragile egos. One of these security mechanisms is called the Self-Enhancement Bias.   Our brain tricks us into believing that other people’s successes are the result of good luck and their failures are well deserved, whereas our failures are a result of bad luck and our successes are well earned.

While the self-enhancement bias effectively bolsters our confidence and does motivate us to achieve, if left unchecked, over-inflated egos create unhealthy self-delusion that can result in narcissism, selfishness, broken relationships and poorer outcomes—if not for the individual, then certainly for those who are impacted by their behavior.  Feedback is the reality check we need to calibrate our confidence to ensure it continues to work for us, instead of spilling into overconfidence, which works against us.

Feedback Improves Performance

Besides saving us from developing over-inflated egos, an abundance of studies show that feedback is one of the most powerful influences on performance.  We do better when we have an accurate understanding of how closely our current performance stands in relation to our desired performance.  Sprinters need feedback from the stopwatch to know if their new training regimen is working.  We lose weight more effectively if we weigh ourselves every day.  My presentations get better when clients tell me what they felt went well and what they would suggest I do differently next time.

Reaffirming feedback tells us that we are on target and encourages us to continue to do what’s working.  Helpful feedback, as I refer to it, gives us ideas on how we can improve.  Research, and common sense, leave no doubt that feedback greatly improves performance.

Power Causes Feedback Deprivation

If people in leadership positions have the greatest impact on team and organizational performance, one could argue that they need feedback the most to keep their performance sharp.  But tragically, the more formal authority one has, the less feedback they tend to receive.  There are two reasons for this.  The higher one climbs in an organization, 1) the fewer people there are above them to directly observe their performance and initiate helpful feedback; and 2) the more people there are below them who are strongly dis-incentivized to say anything that might displease them.  Simply put, the higher you climb, the less feedback you receive.

The feedback deprivation caused by power inequality robs those with formal authority of their self-awareness.  And this lack of self-awareness translates directly into lower emotional intelligence scores.  Emotional intelligence researcher and author, Dr. Travis Bradberry, analyzed the emotional intelligence profiles of over a million people in their database by job title and discovered a disturbing trend.   Emotional intelligence scores climb with titles from the bottom of the corporate ladder upward until middle management.  But from that point on, the higher up the corporate ladder you go, emotional intelligence falls steadily.  “CEOs” Bradberry writes, “on average, have the lowest EQ scores in the workplace.”

The bottom line is that people in leadership positions, including all levels of management, must become experts at requesting feedback it they want to become a more effective leader.

How To Request Feedback

There are many ineffective ways to ask for feedback, but without doubt the worst way is to ask, “Do you have any feedback for me?”  This closed-ended question begs the response “No”, or “I can’t think of any right now.”  Asking for feedback in this way is possibly worse than not asking for feedback at all because the asker will be tricked into thinking that since nobody ever has any helpful feedback for them, they must really be as awesome as they always thought they were!

Instead, renowned leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith advises that the best way to request feedback is to simply ask “How can I do better?”  Phrasing it this way encourages people to provide you with helpful suggestions instead of destructive criticism.

Building on Goldsmith’s suggestion, here are eight tips for requesting feedback like a pro.

  1. Explain Why Are Asking. Before people will give you helpful feedback, they need to be convinced that you want it for the right reason, and the only right reason is so you can improve.  Make sure to be clear about this up front so they don’t come to any other conclusions.
  2. Focus Your Request. People are far more likely to give you helpful feedback if you give them a specific area you’d like feedback on.  For instance, you might ask “How can I do better at running meetings”, or “how I communicate”, or “providing you with feedback.”  (Check out The Definitive Guide to Enlightened Performance Management to learn how managers can establish a routine of giving and receiving feedback with their staff.)
  3. Ask for Positives. I always ask people to start with telling me what I’m doing well.  This makes them feel more comfortable giving me helpful feedback.  If I suspect someone may be uncomfortable giving me feedback, I double-down on this behavioral hack by asking for two things I’m doing well and one thing I could do differently to get better results.
  4. Give Them Time To Think About It. Never ask people to give you a response right then.  Instead, ask them if you can follow up with them in a few days.  This gives them time to think about it.  You may even consider adding ‘sharing feedback’ to your weekly one-to-one meeting.
  5. Receive It In-Person. Don’t ask for feedback to be delivered through email.  Requesting feedback initiates an important conversation where tone of voice and body language adds clarity and reveals sincere intentions.  Although feedback can be delivered over a phone call, it works best in-person or over video conference.
  6. Solicit Feedback From Multiple Sources. Requesting feedback from the same people might lead to a skewed perception of reality or cronyism.  If you really want to improve, ask for feedback from a variety of people, and gather feedback data from objective sources such as surveys and performance metrics.
  7. Receive Feedback with Gratitude. The old saying is true that “people who shoot the messenger stop getting messages.”  The only correct way to respond to feedback is “Thank you.”  You may also want to add something like “I hadn’t considered that” or “You’ve given me something to think about.”  Any defensiveness in your response will be interpreted as a sign that you don’t really want helpful feedback.
  8. Make It Private. Of course, always ask for feedback in a private one-to-one conversation, never in a group setting.

Don’t Give It Until You Ask For It

Requesting feedback is a prerequisite for providing feedback. You may have the right to provide feedback by virtue of your position but showing that you want feedback gives you the emotional permission to provide feedback, and demonstrates that feedback is truly a gift.

 |  About the Author
Michael Timms helps organizations create cultures that produce better leaders.


For help infusing the habit of feedback into your organization, check out the Creating Accountability Workshop Series.