One of my newsfeed settings on my daily research on coachability is anything published on ‘feedback’. In a typical month or so, the great majority of feedback articles are aimed at sending feedback, with titles such as “Three ways to give feedback your employees will accept” and “Five tips on giving feedback that actually changes behavior”. This is all helpful stuff, but what I’ve found over time is that there’s about a ten-to-one ratio of articles on giving feedback vs looking for feedback and coaching. It seems we are more interested in getting our message across on how someone else needs to change instead of seeking input to change our own behavior. Imagine the setting for this give-and-take feedback misbalance—everyone running around trying to score feedback points on someone else, and very few people really looking for it. 

Perhaps the better starting point to bring balance to this equation is for all leaders—including those with feedback messages to send—to start with themselves and humbly demonstrate coachability to others. 

Why do we find it hard to seek feedback?

The word feedback carries so many negative connotations and baggage that it virtually stalls any insightful and well-intended efforts to reframe it as a gift. In Thanks for the Feedback, authors Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen observe that the concept of feedback sits at a tension-filled intersection of wanting to learn and feel accepted. When someone starts a conversation with “I want to give you some feedback”, the common human response is to put up defenses in the interest of protecting our self-esteem. No matter how skilled, caring or appropriate the giver of this gift of feedback, the resistance is always there. 

One of the most common fears is being too vulnerable. You may feel that by asking for input, others will judge you as weak; or, worse yet, magnify a weakness you might have in the mind of others. While the concern has some validity, it is a short-term defensive position with severe long-term consequences. 

In my experience, a leader becomes more vulnerable over time by not making a habit out of seeking input to improve. So, consider the act of seeking input to learn and improve as a strategy to minimize one of the greatest leadership vulnerabilities—the ignorance of negative blind spots and underinvested strengths.

Why we need to seek to improve 

I’ve often said that you can’t solve a problem you don’t know about. My research and professional experience with derailed and prematurely plateaued leaders show that they have a common blind spot on their derailing behavior. In many cases, the people around them are trying to send messages, but they don’t pick up on the signals. Or, in a misguided belief in needing to show independence and strength, they quickly dismiss these signals. 

The reverse is also true that you can’t leverage a strength you don’t know about, and we are often unaware of the strengths that others see. We take our gifts and talents for granted and assume others have the same level of abilities, thus losing the opportunity to see where we should invest in growing differentiating skills. 

Reframing feedback 

I would suggest dropping the term feedback from our vocabulary when offering it and replacing it with “looking for learning.” Try these out instead:

  • I’m looking for a bit of coaching on topic X. Moving forward, what can you suggest?
  • Could you take a moment and pass along any tips or notes on what I can learn about X?

How’s your balance of give-and-take?

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