The Power of Feedback

High self-awareness is a key element in business success. It can be easily overshadowed by the sexier traits of charisma or sheer intellectual genius.  A study a few years back by Green Peak Partners and Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, quantified what employees have known for a while: "Companies and their investors need to put more effort into evaluating the interpersonal strengths of potential leaders. They should focus more on how a leadership candidate does the work, and not focus exclusively on what he or she has done.” 

How one gets things done and the improvements one might make over time are rooted directly in a leader’s ability to face truth about themselves. According to the authors of Heart, Smarts, Guts, and Luck, leaders can improve themselves. According to their Harvard Business Review article, leaders must become “more aware of what motivates them and their decision making.”

In the end, there are three characteristics of feedback that I believe capture why it is critical to our success; Feedback is a mirror, a gift, and a miracle.

Self-Awareness Requires a Mirror

I don’t mean the kind of mirror by which you check your teeth for spinach or fix your hair. I don’t mean the kind of mirror that customer service agents to make sure they are smiling when taking phone calls (however effective that might be). I am referring to a different type of mirror. The kind that tell you how you are showing up in your professional life that leads to self-awareness and reflection. That mirror is feedback.

"Although the quietest of the emotions self-awareness is an incredible predictor of emotional intelligence," writes Daniel Goleman in a study with Korn Ferry Institute. Turns out, the ability to respond to crisis, develop teams, and manage your own emotions are all skills that can be improved with better self awareness.

Every journey begins with a first step and there are a variety of assessments that you can take to improve your self-awareness. Some of my favorite are profiled here for your reference. I have used Kolbe and StrengthsFinders as team building tools, as well, to help us better understand our team mates and how to work together.

Feedback is a Gift that Isn’t Easily Given (or Received)

“Not all gifts arrive in neat packages,” said Carole Robin, director of the Arbuckle Leadership Fellows Program at Standard Graduate School of Business. “This is definitely true for feedback.” Leaders must be exceptional at giving feedback in order to develop their teams and achieve their goals.   Feedback delivered with candid compassion can transform businesses and relationships and most of us could improve our performance.

Leaders have a double responsibility however. They also need to make sure they are not missing out on the opportunity to receive the gift of feedback themselves. Ken Blanchard called feedback “the breakfast of champions.” And sometimes that breakfast is served is too cold, too warm, or too late, but it can be nourishing in any case.

We need to persevere and to find people who can tell us the truth.  “We all need people who can give us feedback,” said Bill Gates. “That’s how we improve.”

People are often hesitant to give pointed feedback to their boss or colleagues. The conversations are awkward and best and can be career limiting, if the leader values comfort and coddling over results and responsibility (and we have all known a few of those).

The gift of feedback must be received and given with open hands, open hearts, and open minds.  Create forums for feedback like 1:1 meetings, office hours, or surveys. In listening sessions, sit with your arms in a neutral position and try to constrain your reactions or defensive tendencies.

And just like your grandmother taught you: not all gifts are what you want, but because it is the “thought that counts” you have to treat the gift, and the giver, with graciousness. You must look for how you can best apply what you are learning. You may end up disregarding portions of what was shared, but it is in the consideration and reflection that changes occur.

Truth Telling is a Miracle (considering the obstacles)

In their book Execution, authors Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan, talk about the seven key traits of a leader and among them are “know yourself” and “insist on realism.” That last topic was so impactful to their thinking and their business success that they went on to write Confronting Reality. Yet in order for leaders to face reality, they need to be told the truth and they need to hear it clearly.

Failure to listen is more common than head cold among senior leaders. Combine this with the difficulty of speaking truth to power and it is no wonder that leaders can live in an echo chamber of glossed-over good news and ungrounded positivity.  We criticize our culture for believing fake news, but often live in a world of fake news about ourselves and our businesses. It is a wonder hard truth is ever spoken, in fact. We are all guilty of not speaking up boldly enough or not being as open to feedback as we should have. It really is a miracle when it happens. Yet, it is a miracle that we can encourage and even facilitate with the right behaviors and attitudes.

In addition to being open to constructive criticisms, it is critical that you understand the data that indicates business success. In most environments, these include revenue and margin or market share data as backward looking indicators. It is also important to look at early or forward-looking indicators such as sales funnel analysis or engagement metrics on key tools or campaigns known to convert to sales. These business dashboards serve the same purpose as the dashboard of your car: providing you a feedback loop that indicates if you are running at speed, violating conditions of success, or if you have a crisis pending. Data reporting and analysis can be an important part of your truth telling toolkit.

With a combination of mirrors, gifts, and miracles, we can lead better businesses and lead them better.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse.