Three Critical Myths About Feedback

user Andrew Blum
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There is no doubt that the giving and receiving of feedback is one of the critical aspects of leadership and executive team development. There are books written about this. Any leader who has been at any company for a long period of time has likely received a 360 or participated in a pulse survey of some kind. These are just some of the different forms of feedback that occur in a corporate environment.

All that said, feedback is not a very well understood tool and is often disruptive because people don’t understand what it is and what it isn’t and are unaware of the “unconscious myths” we have about feedback. Let me outline three of those myths and share some of the corrective actions to take so that you can get better at understanding what feedback is and what it isn’t – and how to give feedback in ways that are helpful rather than disruptive.

Myth #1: Feedback is a Gift

I’ve often heard that feedback is a gift. The idea behind it is that we should always be looking forward to feedback. However, if I tell you that I’m coming to your house on the weekend to give you feedback, my question to you is this: Do you feel a pit in your stomach or do you feel excited? Most likely you will feel anxious because you’re anticipating hearing something that you don’t want to hear. So, feedback is not a gift and it’s never been a gift. It can be valuable in the way that gifts are valuable, but it’s not a gift in and of itself unless it’s delivered with great skill and grace, and in a time and place where it can truly be heard and integrated.

The key to giving feedback in a way where it can be heard and integrated is ironically to start with listening and empathy. Ask that person, “Where are you now? What are you experiencing as a leader?” Acknowledge the validity of their experience and create some level of “agreement” around their situation. To the extent they have identified tensions or stressors in their current experience, offer up solutions or observations that may be helpful. You don’t even need to call it feedback.

Myth #2: Feedback is Helpful

Self-awareness is an essential part of being a highly evolved leader. It is true that understanding how people experience you and see your strengths and weaknesses is good. However, feedback is often delivered separate from the relational context that makes it absorbable. 360s handed out to leaders with verbatim comments rarely create a positive outcome. In fact, they often create a negative outcome where people are left trying to figure out what is helpful and what is criticism. I’ve seen many cases where leaders have had a full lapse of confidence and courage because of the feedback they received.

The key to giving feedback that is helpful is first assessing the person’s readiness for and desire around getting additional information about their performance. Leaders are not obligated to ask for feedback, especially if they’re not in an emotional place where they are ready to hear it. If someone is new to a role or under extraordinary stress, they may not be ready for or interested in feedback.  And, putting their emotional state aside, a leader may not want feedback at all because they already have a sense of what they’re doing well and not well, and want confirmation that their perception of self is accurate. Other times, someone could be feeling very lost and unsure about how they’re being perceived and do want that data – but feedback is only helpful when delivered skillfully and at a time when it is truly wanted.

Myth #3: Leaders Want Frequent Feedback

This is another great myth. No one really wants feedback that frequently. What people do want to hear repeatedly is that they are okay, they are doing great, and that they are seen, valued, and appreciated. We accept feedback and yet often see it as a necessary evil. Yes, we all want to do better, but first we want to be acknowledged for what we are doing well. Most leaders do best when getting positive reinforcement, and then getting corrections or suggestions for improving upon what they’re already doing well. Rarely does feedback take that shape – it’s most often focused on what’s broken or missing. This can be helpful, but most leaders don’t benefit from receiving it frequently.

To seek feedback honestly and authentically, one must have a very strong sense of self anchored in identity and purpose. When a leader is clear about who they are and who they want to be, they can be much more open to feedback that helps advance their own journey. If a leader is not clear on those things and is looking for feedback to help, they’re probably going to be unsuccessful because they are relying on an extrinsic evaluation to help figure out who and how they want to be. Almost necessarily, that extrinsic evaluation will be based on incomplete data and if not received from a place of confidence, can be easily discounted and negated.

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Feedback myths aside, our view of self is necessarily different from people’s experience of us. More often than not, we already know what our key gaps and strengths are. By holding feedback as an important but selectively applied tool or process, we make it something that adds value. This requires great consciousness and clear intent. We must not simply treat feedback as an always-valuable gift that people want.

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