Managers live their lives in a bubble of praise, flattery and positive reinforcement. The higher you rise in the organization, the truer this becomes. Most managers know this on some level, and some may worry about it. But our research shows very few worry about it enough to solicit any constructive criticism. Look at data taken from nearly half a million 360-degree feedback instruments on some 20,000 global leaders during the past 20 years.
It’s not just that people get less feedback as they grow older; they get less as they grow more powerful within the firm.
This is troubling in view of previous research showing the older people get and the higher in the organization they rise, the more feedback they want.
So how much feedback have you gotten lately? How much, say, in the past two weeks? Has anyone complimented you? Has any subordinate told you about a problem you hadn’t already heard about? Has anyone who works for you offered a different view about some decision you’ve made? Has anyone made any suggestion about something you could be doing but are not?
This is the sort of feedback we commonly think is appropriate for a manager to give to a subordinate. It’s just the sort of information that needs to flow the other way as well — up.
But it does not. The reasons why it’s so rare aren’t hard to fathom. It’s a rare company where offering unsolicited opinions about one’s boss is rewarded. Also, encouraging the flow of feedback upward isn’t just a matter of asking for it. One needs to create an environment in which it is both safe for people to give leaders feedback and for them to receive it.
The lack of dialogue between people at different levels about organization strategy has been described as one of the greatest “silent killers” of organizational alignment and commitment to the company’s vision.
When getting feedback from others, there are at least two distinct forces at play. When we receive feedback we are hoping to have our self-concept reaffirmed, if not enhanced. It is rewarding to hear credible messages that reinforce the good things we believe about ourselves. At the same time, we can benefit from learning something new or hearing about some things we could do better, could do more of or that we should stop doing.
Not every message will fulfill both of these objectives. If managers are willing to suspend their need for confirmation or enhancement of their self-image and instead seek messages that can help them grow and develop, they will receive great benefit. This often requires a deliberate decision to suspend the need for self-validation and instead seek for a different path to development.
Encourage taking baby steps. There is an old Swedish proverb that says, “With the eating comes the appetite.” If you can get people to take the first taste and see that they can get valuable information, then they are willing to eat the rest of the meal. It is the first bite that is always a hard one to take.
Still, asking for feedback from subordinates can be tricky. It needs to be done in a way that will not be interpreted as fishing for compliments. One manager made a practice of wandering throughout the organization and saying to people, “Tell me something you suspect I don’t know and might not want to hear.” Then he would wait and invariably learn valuable information. He is asking for upward feedback that is clearly intended to be substantive, not flattering.
Ask for feedback from those around you. That will accelerate performance more than any other thing you can do.
Joe Folkman is the president and co-founder of Zenger Folkman, a professional services firm providing consulting, leadership development programs and implementation software for organizational effectiveness initiatives. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.