Leadership is a lot like a ropes course – you are confronted with challenge after challenge, each one testing your skills and giving you an opportunity for personal development and team growth. In this series, we are looking at elements of “The Leadership Ropes Course” that all leaders need to face – and master!
If you are confronted with a 12-foot sheer wall – a common obstacle on a ropes course – chances are good you won’t be able to get over the top of it by yourself. But with helpful teammates to give you a boost, you can get to the other side and take your stand on the narrow platform placed there. That puts you in the perfect position to give a hand up to your teammates on the ground.
As a leader, you want to serve your team, your company, and your customers to the best of your ability. If you are honest with yourself, however, you will admit that you have areas for development that you need to address to be your best self. The problem is, you may be completely unaware of some of your areas for development. They are blind spots, habitual behaviors, or head trash you have lived with so long that you literally can’t see them.
How do you get over this obstacle? As with “The Wall” on a ropes course, you need the help of others. This help comes in the form of honest feedback: feedback that will give you the push you need to surmount whatever is preventing you from being the best leader you can be.
James Sipe and Don Frick in their classic book Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership observe that asking for feedback takes a combination of humility and boldness:
“If you want to know how you are doing, you have to accept the responsibility of finding out. By inviting feedback you have a chance to measure how you are doing on progress toward attaining your goals …. The first step is a courageous one: intentionally make yourself vulnerable to the possibility that you are not right all the time.”
Sounds straightforward enough … except that it’s not. Here’s the issue: your title always enters the room before you do. People tend to be reticent about giving honest feedback to a leader (particularly a senior leader) because they fear potential blowback.
We have seen this numerous times when working with clients. For example, we will have conversations with people and find out that a certain VP is too controlling. She just doesn’t know how to delegate and really empower the people she is delegating to. But when we talk to the leader, she says she has asked her team for feedback about her approach and people have assured her that everything is great.
If you ask but people don’t answer, then what?
First, acknowledge that you are not “P.I.E.W.” – perfect in every way – and that you would benefit from honest feedback.
Second, recognize that there is a reason you are not getting honest feedback from people and it probably has to do with fear of how such feedback would be received.
Third, take action to intentionally create a culture where two-way feedback is normative.
The third point is where the real and ongoing work takes place. Your team knows that, as a leader, you give feedback to them and hold them accountable. To get them to reciprocate, you need to:
- Have a frank discussion about the need for mutual feedback. Talk about how mutual feedback benefits each individual, the team, and the business. Use an analogy like The Wall the explain how feedback helps the team overcome obstacles.
- Make yourself vulnerable. You may want to point out an area for personal development that you are aware of to level the playing field. Humility is a core way to build trust with and among your team.
- Give assurance that there will be no repercussions for offering feedback. No reprimands, no negative reviews, no removal from key projects … just appreciation for constructive, honest feedback. You will need to reinforce this point many times to create a culture where feedback flourishes.
- Anchor feedback and accountability in the structure of the team. Determine several ways for feedback to be given (for example, during semi-annual performance appraisals) and put guidelines in place to ensure accountability. Feedback is useless unless acted upon. In particular, you as a leader need to be accountable to your team to act upon the feedback you receive.
As a word of warning, remember that one error can undo months of work. All it takes to completely undermine a culture of trust is for one person to feel that they were punished for giving honest feedback and your entire team will clam up.
But when you and your team successfully build a culture of trust and become comfortable giving mutual feedback, you will find that there is no obstacle that can stand in your way. Each of you will help the others rise to be your very best!