Feedback Is Your Friend: Part One

By Cal Zant
November 5, 2019

Feedback is the breakfast of champions. – Ken Blanchard

 If you listen to constructive criticism, you will be at home among the wise. If you reject discipline, you only harm yourself; but if you listen to correction, you grow in understanding. – Proverbs 15:31-32 

In his book Integrity, Dr. Henry Cloud explains that leaders must be oriented toward the truth. No matter how difficult it is to hear, reality is always our friend. Great leaders don’t assume they know what reality is. They don’t have a prideful, know-it-all approach where they basically say “Get out of my way! I know what I’m doing.” They admit they don’t know what they don’t know, and despite their accomplishments, they still have more to learn.

People who have an orientation to the truth seek it out. They look for it and do everything they can to find it so that they know where to stand, what steps to take, etc. They basically see reality as their best ally, so finding it becomes of utmost importance. They have a hunger for finding out what is true. They are different from people who are honest, but do not take steps to discover the reality they may not be aware of. A lot of people are not in denial when it comes and knocks on their door. They are able to acknowledge it and not resist it. But they are basically passive about it, not active. The kind of people I am talking about don’t wait for others to give them feedback, they go after it themselves. They desire it and see it as an opportunity to grow.

Key Observation from Dr. Henry Cloud:

I was doing an executive retreat one time with a small group of CEOs who had gathered for three days to process things. One of them was an up-and-comer in the industry, a rising star. The rest of the group had been around longer and had more experience. On the first night, they all went around the group and shared where they were, what they were up to, how they were doing it, and what they needed to get from the rest of the group. When he finished, one of the more experienced guys looked up and said, “Want some feedback?” He said it in a way that left you wondering whether he was going to give sage advice or rail the young man for being out to lunch in some way. There was just no way to tell from his poker face. But I will never forget the young superstar’s immediate response: “By all means. Give me a gift.” He saw the feedback, whatever it was, as a gift because it could give him some reality that he did not know. I remember thinking, “We will be watching this guy’s accomplishments for a long time.”

Great leaders want to know the reality of who they are. They’re in tune with the fact that they do not see themselves accurately. They admit they have blind spots, which are behaviors or character flaws that are outside of their field of view. They aren’t aware of them, but others are. We can sometimes be blissfully ignorant to how others perceive us. If we want to know our comfort level in this, think of going to people we work with or are in close personal relationship with and give them 100% permission to be totally honest with us in answering this question: “What is it like to be on the other end of me?” Even if it means facing up to some painful news, the seeker sees the result as positive.

Human nature is to “not look,” but it is the people who have little self-awareness that are the most dysfunctional. It is a paradox of life that the less we look at our shortcomings, the more others do. The one who regularly seeks out feedback needs it the least, and the one who never seeks it tends to need it the most.

The truth is EVERYONE has blind spots. And when it comes to leadership in particular, we all have room for growth. So logically speaking, if we admit we have blind spots, there is only one questions left: Do we want to know where those are?

Leaders at every level need candid feedback to grow. Feedback can illuminate blind spots about our behavior that we simply can’t see without input from the outside. Without accurate knowledge, leaders have no measures or dials for adjusting their own behavior and may adjust in the wrong direction, expend effort in the wrong places, and create even more distance between their intentions and their actual impact on others.

“No matter how good you think you are as a leader, my goodness, the people around you will have all kinds of ideas for how you can get better. So for me, the most fundamental thing about leadership is to have the humility to continue to get feedback and to try to get better – because your job is to try to help everybody else get better,” Jim Yong Kim reminds us. As a leader, we must model the courage, humility, and grace to embrace feedback. If we aren’t open to it, how can we expect our teams to be?

Seeking feedback extends beyond yourself. Leaders must seek feedback on behalf of their team from customers, partners, etc., so they are aware of where they need to improve. A major finding from Collin’s research in Good to Great was that great leaders are willing to “confront brutal facts.” One executive put it this way: “When you turn over rocks and look at all the squiggly things underneath, you can either put the rock down, or you can say, ‘My job is to turn over rocks and look at the squiggly things,’ even if what you see can scare the hell out of you.” The courage to regularly seek and face into feedback for yourself and your team is part of what it takes to be a leader.

Soliciting & Receiving

If you want a genuine assessment of how you’re doing, you’re going to have to make the first move and ask for it. We must empower the people around us to give us candid feedback and intentionally create avenues for that to happen.

The key to soliciting feedback is we must radiate a sincere desire to learn and improve. We must be approachable and make it safe. Feedback feels like confrontation to most people and they don’t want to risk starting a fight. We’ve learned many people are just fishing for praise when they ask for feedback, so that’s what we provide. They don’t want to hurt your feelings and want out of a dangerous conversation. But if they know we genuinely desire honest feedback, that we’ll thank them for it, and that we’ll do something with the feedback they provide, then we’ll benefit and so will they.

Some people will provide more honest feedback than others. Seek them out! And remember it’s our responsibility as leaders to cultivate trust with people so they’ll get to the point where they feel safe to give us honest criticism. We all need “loving critics,” which are people who care about you and want you to do well – and because they genuinely care about your well-being, they’re willing to give you the truth you need to become your best. Elon Musk urges us to “Really pay attention to negative feedback and solicit it, particularly from friends – hardly anyone does that and it’s incredibly helpful.”

Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy. – Proverbs 27:6

The trouble with the most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism. – Norman Vincent Peale

The more specific we are with our requests the more likely others will have something to share. Don’t just ask, “How can I be better?” Be specific like, “How could I do a better job supporting your decisions?”  You could even bait the hook by saying, “In that meeting this morning I felt like people were holding back. Could you help me brainstorm things I could do different to help everyone share their opinions?”

A Culture of Feedback

Willow Creek Church in suburban Chicago was studied by Harvard Business School as a result of its extraordinary growth culture. From small beginnings, it has become one of America’s largest churches with 20,000 attendees, and its leadership conferences have been host to presidents and highly respected business leaders. If you spend much time working in their culture, you will hear the phrase “give me the last 10%.” That means they know two things:

1.) People tend to hold back on feedback that might be difficult for someone to hear and do not always express their full critique of someone’s performance. They might, for example, say “It was okay, not your best, but okay.” But the part they are holding back, the last 10%, is “Okay, if I’m totally honest, I’m not sure people understood your last point.”

2.) We need the last 10% to be the best we can be. I’m convinced one aspect of Willow’s success is developing a culture of people who desire to hear the last 10%.

When someone does oblige and provide candid feedback, remember our only job at that moment is to say, “Thank you.” Feedback is a gift, so don’t get defensive or lash back. If someone corrects us and we feel offended, we may have ego problems. True humility is being able to accept criticisms as graciously as we accept compliments.

When someone is really honest with us as leaders, we should feel honored. They trusted us enough to be vulnerable. They believe we have the integrity to face reality and do something about it; otherwise, they wouldn’t have taken the risk. In most organizations, people simply won’t be honest with their leaders. Everyone wants the truth, but nobody will be honest. May it be different among us!

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