5 Steps to Becoming a Leader Who Actively and Effectively Seeks Feedback

“Feedback is an important way for individual growth and development. Compared to regular employees, the growth and development of senior leaders undoubtedly have a more significant impact on an organization’s competitiveness. As the saying goes, ‘A fast-moving train relies on the locomotive.

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However, in reality, senior leaders are often characterized by providing more feedback than they seek, seeking feedback privately rather than publicly, seeking feedback indirectly rather than directly, and receiving more positive feedback than negative feedback.

We must be vigilant: how can such leaders achieve personal growth and development? Have leaders forgotten sayings like ‘Learn from those below,’ ‘Appreciate criticism,’ and ‘Listen to multiple perspectives’?

To find answers, we recently reviewed a lot of academic research literature and made some preliminary discoveries. Today, let’s talk about the matter of leaders seeking feedback. Specifically:

  • What exactly is seeking feedback?
  • The four benefits of leaders actively seeking feedback
  • The three disadvantages of leaders not actively seeking feedback
  • The three obstacles to leaders actively seeking feedback
  • How to seek feedback? Five suggestions for leaders”

01-What Exactly Is Seeking Feedback?

According to Ashford, an authoritative scholar on feedback-seeking behavior, seeking feedback refers to individuals proactively seeking information about how to improve and enhance their actions to determine their correctness. There are primarily two strategies for seeking feedback:

Direct Inquiry (Inquiring): Directly asking others about their perceptions and evaluations of one’s behavior. For example, a leader directly asks others for feedback on their leadership within a team, inquiring about areas where they may fall short or need improvement.

Observation/Monitoring: Monitoring relevant information in the environment through observing situational cues, observing others, and observing how others react to one’s behavior to infer their own performance. For instance, a leader launching a team collaboration task can judge the appropriateness of goal setting and whether the team’s collaborative atmosphere meets expectations by observing employee engagement or signs of disengagement during the task.

Each feedback-seeking strategy has its advantages and disadvantages. “Direct inquiry” allows individuals to obtain the feedback they desire directly from suitable feedback sources, avoiding potential misunderstandings, while strengthening their connection with the feedback providers. However, “direct inquiry” involves both feedback seeking and feedback providing, which may require higher demands regarding appropriateness concerning timing, individuals, frequency, content, etc. On the other hand, “observation/monitoring” enables individuals to perceive information that may be deliberately concealed in the process of seeking feedback, conducting feedback seeking in a “covert” environment. It also helps avoid the “face-saving” bias often associated with a leader’s identity. Nevertheless, the information cues in “observation/monitoring” may be complex, ambiguous, or inconsistent, demanding a higher level of information selection, discrimination, interpretation, analysis, and integration skills for leaders.

In the context of the high-context communication culture, leaders may be more inclined to and adept at using the indirect and implicit approach of “observation/monitoring” rather than the direct and straightforward approach of “direct inquiry.” Therefore, when discussing leaders’ proactive feedback-seeking behavior in this article, we mainly refer to “direct inquiry,” especially in the recommendations section.

02-The Four Benefits of Leaders Proactively Seeking Feedback

1.Better Adaptation to Uncertainty

Whether it’s VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) or BANI (Brittle, Anxious, Nonlinear, Incomprehensible), both emphasize the uncertainty of the environment. The only certainty is uncertainty itself. In such an environment, leaders seeking feedback can build connections with others to gain richer perspectives on potential crises and hazards in the environment. Ray Dalio, the founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, highly encourages employees to voice different opinions, requests honest feedback, and even asks employees to grade him from A to F. This robust feedback mechanism allows him to maintain high-quality decision-making in the turbulent and complex financial industry.

2.Overcoming the “Feedback Vacuum”

Leaders in high positions are prone to falling into a “feedback vacuum.” Research by Professor Conway of Cornell University and Professor Huffcutt of the University of Wisconsin found that the higher the managerial position and the more complex the role, the less frequent and consistent the feedback received. In many cases, employees may also fear providing honest evaluations to these leaders and tend to guess what they want to hear. This phenomenon is known as “CEO Disease” in the media – the higher the status, the lower the spontaneity and authenticity of the feedback received. To overcome these challenges, proactive feedback-seeking by leaders becomes essential. Actively seeking feedback allows leaders to obtain a genuine evaluation of themselves, gain clear self-awareness and positioning, and understand their strengths and blind spots, thereby avoiding being stubborn or disconnected from their followers. As Tang Taizong said, “Take people as a mirror to understand gains and losses.”

3.Enhanced Leadership Effectiveness

Renowned management experts Zenger and Folkman conducted a study involving 50,000 leaders and found that leaders who “proactively seek feedback” scored in the top 10% for leadership effectiveness, outperforming 86% of their peers in overall leadership effectiveness. Conversely, those in the bottom 10% of leadership effectiveness scores were also among the lowest 15% in terms of overall leadership effectiveness.

4.Improved Interpersonal Impressions

Leaders’ feedback-seeking behavior can also serve as a way of impression management, especially when seeking negative feedback, which reflects a leader’s humility. A study by Chun and colleagues at a Korean university found that, compared to performance improvement, leaders’ feedback-seeking behavior is more driven by impression management motives and indeed results in better interpersonal impressions.

03-The Three Drawbacks of Leaders Not Actively Seeking Feedback

1.Self: Potential for Cognitive Bias

Cognitive bias refers to a distortion or deviation in perception of oneself, others, and the environment due to subjective factors. American leadership expert McNulty suggests that many leaders often refuse to face facts and dwell in illusions, replacing self-reflection with arrogance. Sydney Finkelstein, a professor of strategy and leadership at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, mentioned in “The Mother of All Success” that there are four destructive behaviors that can unwittingly lead a company into a downward spiral: (1) personal cognitive errors of business leaders that prevent the company from seeing reality clearly, (2) incorrect attitudes that allow mistakes to replace truth, (3) problems in the communication system for handling potential urgent information, and (4) leadership traits that prevent business leaders from correcting their mistakes. Therefore, if leaders do not actively seek feedback, it may lead to serious cognitive biases, placing both the organization and themselves in jeopardy.

2.Work: Potential to Fall into the Competency Trap

Herminia Ibarra, an expert in career and leadership development, introduced the concept of the “competency trap.” Individuals who spend more time on what they are good at, limiting their activities to areas where they have historically delivered the most value, may eventually find themselves in a dilemma: their previous skills and experiences no longer meet the demands of the new environment. It can be imagined that leaders who lack feedback-seeking tendencies are more likely to spend their time on what they are good at and familiar with, potentially overlooking more critical matters.

3.Interpersonal: Potential for Isolation

Aristotle, an ancient Western philosopher, stated in “Politics” that “man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human.” The fundamental social nature of humans illustrates that isolation is undoubtedly a dreadful situation. When leaders rarely seek feedback, their connections with colleagues diminish, and the sophisticated “professional mask” reduces employees’ perception of the leader’s authenticity. They cannot discern the leader’s true needs and emotions, leading to distance. This sense of distance can further contribute to two scenarios: (1) the leader is seen as highly competent in their role, fostering personal adoration, but also encouraging more employees to adopt a “riding on the coattails” mentality; (2) when the leader appears to struggle, others find it challenging to understand how to provide assistance, resulting in a “watch from a distance” approach.

04-The Three Barriers to Leaders Actively Seeking Feedback

1.Internal Hindrance: Threats to Self-Esteem

Leadership roles come with inherent social pressures, as leaders receive significant attention and have higher expectations for themselves. Leaders may experience a heightened “identity anxiety” compared to regular employees and become more sensitive to negative feedback. Leaders may attempt to maintain their self-esteem by continually seeking positive feedback, which can divert them from the original purpose of feedback-seeking: correcting and improving. Consequently, leaders may have reduced motivation to seek feedback.

2.External Concerns: Image Maintenance

In people’s minds, leaders are often perceived as goal-setters, regulators, and finders of the “right” answers or as problem solvers, adversaries, and suppressors of opposition to achieve extraordinary results. While academia and industry have advocated for portraying ideal managers as coordinators, facilitators, coaches, supporters, and developers, many leaders have been trained under the hero model. The hero model emphasizes continued progress and “making things bigger.” Feedback-seeking, which requires leaders to slow down and reflect, contradicts the image associated with the hero model, characterized by swift action and active leadership. To maintain their image as the organization’s “front-runner” and the heroic figure capable of turning the tide during critical moments, leaders may reduce feedback-seeking behaviors, which may appear “weak” in comparison.

3.Feedback Pressure: Resource Consumption

Seeking feedback can be mentally taxing. When others provide feedback to leaders, they may sugarcoat their words or hold back on delivering difficult messages, requiring leaders to expend cognitive and psychological resources to discern the authenticity of the feedback. After seeking feedback, leaders must either make changes based on the feedback or explain why they chose not to. Ignoring feedback that they deem uninteresting may decrease the likelihood of feedback providers offering input in the future. It can even create a perception that feedback-seeking is merely a superficial act, significantly reducing the quality of future feedback. As a result, leaders may feel pressured to respond to feedback, and not seeking any feedback may appear to be the easier option.

05-Five Recommendations for Seeking Feedback as a Leader

  1. Show Vulnerability and Build Authentic Relationships: Social relationship expert Brené Brown’s extensive research reveals that the foundation of social relationships lies in vulnerability. Vulnerability in this context does not signify weakness or submission but rather having the courage to be oneself. During feedback interactions, both the feedback seeker and the provider may be influenced by personal biases, roles, and identities, making it challenging to be completely open. As Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates, emphasizes, the more open you are, the less likely you are to deceive yourself, resulting in more genuine feedback from others. Being open and vulnerable allows you to benefit more from seeking feedback.
  2. Be Willing to Learn and Set Learning Goals: “Being quick to learn and not ashamed to ask questions” is considered a sign of wisdom. However, not all leaders can set aside their pride to seek feedback and ask questions from their employees. This reluctance may be due to differences in beliefs about the significance of learning versus performance goals. Learning-oriented leaders believe that effort is the primary determinant of success, while performance-oriented leaders attribute success to high competence. For learning-oriented leaders, feedback is seen as an opportunity for self-improvement and behavior enhancement. For performance-oriented leaders, feedback is regarded as an evaluation of various aspects of the self, leading to resistance and defensiveness. Embracing the attitude of “not ashamed to ask questions” fosters open and productive communication, as it makes those who seek help feel valued and respected.
  3. Welcome Criticism and Embrace a Growth Mindset: Many individuals have a natural inclination to reject criticism and negative information. Is it possible to develop the mindset of welcoming criticism? Psychologist Carol Dweck’s research on the growth mindset suggests that individuals who view learning as a continuous process and enjoy exploring unfamiliar territory can alleviate their fear of failure. Research has shown that individuals with a growth mindset are more likely to grow and improve from their mistakes. Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, advocated for this mindset, stating, “True self-confidence is the courage to be open—to welcome change and new ideas, regardless of where they come from.” He discarded elitism, listened to employees’ honest feedback, tapped into and developed their potential, and embraced a growth mindset toward both himself and others. It’s important to note that a growth mindset can be cultivated and practiced deliberately, allowing leaders to gradually change their perspective and embrace a growth-oriented mindset.
  4. Listen to Diverse Feedback Channels: Tamara Chandler, one of the top 25 consultants in America, wrote in her book “Feedback (and Other Dirty Words)” that the more sources of feedback, the more resources and perspectives you have for learning. It’s clear that, whether observing oneself or attempting to solve a problem, feedback from diverse sources in various fields, with different positions and perspectives, can provide more impartial and accurate information, helping leaders eliminate biases and make correct judgments. To achieve this, leaders can establish anonymous employee forums that encourage open discussions, constructive criticism, and sharing stories. For example, Huawei created a platform called “Heartbeat” for employees to chat, voice concerns, provide suggestions, and share stories, making it an effective channel for senior executives to hear diverse voices.
  5. Align Knowledge with Action to Create a Feedback-Seeking Loop: Ultimately, feedback-seeking serves the purpose of acquiring knowledge and, more importantly, applying that knowledge. “Knowledge” entails understanding which aspects of yourself require feedback, being clear about your objectives and needs during the feedback-seeking process, and effectively seeking feedback. “Action” means expressing what you’ve learned through behavior: genuinely seeking feedback, interpreting, filtering, and integrating useful information, and making actual improvements in your thoughts and actions. Leaders should genuinely seek feedback, express appreciation for feedback providers, and demonstrate that they value and respect the feedback, creating a positive feedback-seeking loop for future interactions.

These recommendations may not be as straightforward to implement as one might hope. Nevertheless, we sincerely hope that you, as a leader, will make a concerted effort to become someone who actively seeks and embraces feedback from now on.

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