Feedback is the Breakfast of Champions

“Happy are they who can hear their detractions and put them to mending”
 – William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing

If Shakespeare is right then no one can perform optimally without feedback. Yet according to the revered American psychologist Abraham Maslow most of us are torn about giving and receiving critical feedback. He referred to this as “the need to know and the fear of knowing.”  Managers especially have a hard time obtaining useful feedback. In power relationships such as between the boss and the bossed people will not speak “their truth” if they believe it will come back to bite them. Therefore, in my experience the best solicited feedback is confidential feedback. To maintain the confidentiality you need an unbiased third party to do the surveying.

Beyond confidential feedback, managers, if they are to improve, need what my colleague Robert Hogan calls Strategic Self-Awareness. Allow me to explain; things that are known to us and known to others is public knowledge. What is known to us and unknown to others is private knowledge. The fascinating knowledge is the information that is known to others but unknown to us, commonly referred to as blind spots. When that information is revealed to us, those are illuminating moments that facilitate dramatic change. These blindside moments are sometimes hurtful but always instructive. What is unknown to us is usually well-known to others. To see ourselves as others see us is strategic self-awareness.

Through the use of assessment tools (personality tests, 360 evaluations) managers can systematically enhance learning and gain self-awareness. However, not all assessment instruments are equally effective in building strategic self-awareness. Firstly, the assessment should be designed for the workplace. This means that managers are profiled and compared to other managers along dimensions that are relevant to job performance.  

Secondly, the assessment should be able to detect two types of performance problems: deficiencies when managers display too little of an important leadership behavior and excesses when managers apply a particular behavior too much. Deficiencies normally fall in the category of public knowledge. However, excesses which ironically are strengths overused constitute blind spots. Feedback delivered in terms of too little/underdoing and too much/overdoing makes it instantly clear what you (the manager) needs to do to improve. Regrettably, most leadership assessment operates on the assumption that more is better.

First Seek Feedback, then Feed Forward

We all require feedback to determine where we stand, to establish the direction we are headed and to measure our progress along the chosen developmental path. Feedforward, the brainchild of renowned executive coach Marshall Goldsmith comes in the form of ideas you can put into practice in the future. Simply put feedback is about yesterday and feedforward is about tomorrow. The procedure is easy to implement: Describe your developmental goal in a one to one dialogue with anyone you know, ask for two suggestions and end by saying thank you. No evaluation or discussion around the ideas put forth are permitted by the solicitor of ideas. The beauty of feedforward is that it does not arouse defensiveness. In fact, it is energizing and forces us to follow-up: by asking, listening and enlisting others in our initiative for personal change. So remember first seek feedback then feedforward.

Guest author: Jorge Fernandez