One of the critical services of the leader is to move people from fear of feedback to anticipation of coaching, Most of us have experienced “constructive” criticism that came across as negative, even punitive, so it’s no wonder we get knots in the stomach and flutters in the chest when the annual performance evaluation comes around. I expect the ones conducting the review are as anxious as the ones receiving it – no one likes drama and conflict. We would benefit from an entirely different approach to regular and frequent coaching that empowers and engages.
We often think that the first thing a leader needs to learn is how to give balanced feedback. But experience shows that a culture of coaching begins when leaders first model how to receive feedback from those they serve.
Servant-leaders know that there is almost always a gap between how they intend to show up and how they are actually perceived by others. To close this gap, servant-leaders are open to learning about themselves. They are always seeking insights into what how they are coming across. Equipped with this knowledge of how others experience them, they multiply actions that are helpful and freeing. They also welcome suggestions as to what’s getting in the way so they can change these ineffective behaviors.
Here are five practices developed by ThirdRiver Partners* which I’ve put to work with clients. These practices, when followed consistently, will not only help you close your own intention-perception gap, but also prepare those you lead to address their own gaps. The result: a culture of mutual coaching that leads to high alignment with vision, values, and mission. Exceptional results follow when everyone is pulling together and giving their very best.
1. Ask for feedback. Give others permission to speak into your leadership. If necessary, especially at the beginning, script how you will invite these conversations. Initially, people may be taken by surprise; they may even be suspicious. That’s why it’s good to have a well-crafted opening, one that sets the expectation that you, as the leader, want to receive feedback well. You are the model; people will align themselves to what you say and do.
2. Check your emotional temperature. Look inside, notice, and assess your knee jerk responses. Are you gearing up to defend and justify rather than actively listen? Or are you asking yourself, “What is this person seeing that I might be missing?” Be internally prepared to handle feeling persecuted or being a victim. Do this by choosing to have a calm, secure, and open mind. Remember, no matter your emotions in the moment, you don’t have to identify who you are with what you feel.
3. Focus on potential benefit. Assume positive intent, even when your feedback partner is less than gracious. Take this as “feed-forward” by focusing on your own goals as a leader. Tell yourself, “I can learn from this how to be stronger, more effective, and a servant others will choose to follow and emulate.” Ultimately, that’s your personal aim. Be assured, when it’s your turn to give feedback, you will have first-hand practice demonstrating genuine positive intent.
4. Make sure everyone is clear. Confirm what’s been said by summarizing what you’ve heard. Be objective and positive, and you will keep the path clear for ongoing dialogue. Sometimes you need to reframe the feedback. Say it back the way you would have said it. Replaying the highlights offers the feedback-giver a way to put their thoughts in clearer, more helpful terms. Also you are preparing them for how you will coach them when it’s your turn.
5. Own the feedback and take appropriate action. Begin by thanking your partner and letting them know as specifically as you can what you plan to start, stop, do more of, and do less of. Be careful here that you don’t promise more than you can deliver. You are truly serving when you take ownership of those changes that are possible and appropriate. And if you have fallen short, as we all do, accept the correction, apologize, turn the page, and move toward healthy growth. You do no one any good either to shirk responsibility or beat yourself up.
Feedback is a gift. We’ve all learned that it’s better to give than to receive. But when it comes to creating and sustaining a culture of coaching, it’s best to receive first and receive well. That’s how we pave the way for others to receive our feedback for their growth and commitment to the great purposes for which our organizations exist.