Feedback and Reflection for Leaders

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

By Clive Martlew

Using Feedback to Trigger Reflection

A few weeks ago I had a long discussion with a senior leader in the UK Civil Service – let’s call him Jim - about the value of reflection. We began by discussing how opportunities for reflection had changed as he’d risen up the career ladder. Early in his career he did a lot of reflection and did it in a variety of ways. These opportunities often arose after feedback from Jim’s manager, from peers or from his staff. Sometimes this was part of a formal process of 360° feedback or performance appraisal; sometimes the result of a debrief or even a crisis. But as Jim’s career progressed he noticed that feedback loops became weaker. As he progressed into senior roles there were fewer and fewer peers to provide feedback, and fewer top managers who were willing or able to act as coaches and mentors. Also he felt it became more and more difficult to get challenge from more junior colleagues. As he’d instinctively relied on feedback events to trigger time for reflection so it became easier to seal himself off from the deep reflection that had fuelled his early career success. He needed to find a different way of creating the nudge to stop and step back.

This seems to be something Jim shares with a lot of leaders. I’ve noticed that others I’ve coached or interviewed say similar things. Feedback is the main catalyst that gets them to pause and reflect. But as they become more and more senior the sources of that feedback dry up or become weaker, and they begin to doubt the authenticity of the feedback that they do get.

In addition many thoughtful leaders express concerns about their ability to genuinely hear feedback when given to them. Most of the senior leaders with whom I discuss this consider themselves open to feedback and make what they regard as significant efforts to ask for it. However, most also have the self awareness to recognise that their senior roles likely inhibit complete honesty by others. They also acknowledge they sometimes have to fight hard against a tendency to (partly unconsciously) question the value of feedback from more junior staff or external stakeholders: “what could they possibly know about the problems I’m dealing with?”

The ‘Feedback Problem’

This all got me thinking about feedback as a trigger for reflection. The majority of organisations now use some form of performance management system that explicitly involves feedback from the boss and many also use formal systems of 360° feedback involving quantitative ratings as well as qualitative commentary. In a recent HBR review of feedback (The Feedback Fallacy) Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall commented that many organisations seem to be indulging a “fetish with feedback” and some are going so far as extolling the virtues of “radical candour“ – requiring extreme and continuous peer feedback on performance.

Of course this ‘feedback problem’ has long been acknowledged by researchers. The stories about reflection that I hear from leaders chime with the research evidence. Asking for feedback makes us uncomfortable and people generally don't respond well to critical feedback when it’s given - they get defensive and use a range of tactics to distance themselves from it. Attempts to overcome problems with ‘in-person’ feedback through anonymous 360° feedback have had mixed success. Many organisations use it in the belief that anonymity helps honesty. And many people find 360° feedback interesting and helpful in providing ideas about where to focus their development.

Seeing ourselves from multiple perspectives and the aggregation of those perspectives helps us see things differently. Unfortunately in general we are unreliable raters of others’ performance in relation to abstract concepts like leadership, communication or influencing – although we believe otherwise. So rating multiple abstract competencies is a notoriously unreliable format. Even agreement among raters doesn’t seem to be a reliable indicator of ‘the truth’. And numeric scoring doesn’t help us work out specifically we are doing right and wrong or what to do about the results. Stop/start/continue forms of feedback are far too broad.

The focus on identifying and fixing “gaps” in performance doesn’t lead to excellence, just to the avoidance of failure or adequacy. As Buckingham and Goodall comment: “Telling people what we think of their performance doesn’t help them thrive and excel and telling people how we think they should improve actually hinders learning.”

Also it's clear that people hold back useful feedback. Tasha Eurich in her book Insight, outlines the extensive evidence that “People usually don’t tell us the truth about ourselves” - to avoid embarrassment and because they fear reprisals. And while most organisations at least pay lip service to feedback and performance management very few people get useful feedback.

The Leader’s Blind Spot

Finally there’s an interesting blind spot that goes with seniority and power that makes finding, receiving and really understanding feedback a particular challenge for senior leaders; they find it difficult to see the world from anothers’ point of view. An important research paper by Adam Galinsky and colleagues in the journal Psychological Science explores the relationship between power and perspective taking.

Basically he demonstrated that more senior, powerful people were less able to comprehend how other individuals see the world, think about the world, and feel about the world. So the more powerful a leader becomes the less likely they are to spontaneously adopt another person’s perspective, less likely to take into account that another person did not possess their privileged knowledge, and less accurate in detecting the emotional states of other people. Power leads individuals to anchor too heavily on their own vantage point, and insufficiently adjust to others' perspectives. In addition Galinsky’s experiments demonstrate that people with more power significantly overestimate their ability to empathise with others. They have to work harder and be more intentional in overcoming this natural tendency. As they become more powerful over their career they may be unaware of a decline in their perspective taking ability. Maybe something we intuitively know but good to have the evidence to forewarn leaders who think they're 'in touch'.

The Feedback Challenge

So its hard to make good judgements about others’ performance and difficult to give, receive and interpret feedback. It’s not easy to avoid defensiveness and discounting and genuinely see yourself from the point of view of others. And all of these are particularly true for more senior leaders. So there's a big question: if you’re in a leadership position and you rely on feedback as a key nudge for reflection how do you encourage authentic and meaningful feedback from others and how do you use it well?

Eight Steps to Better Use of Feedback in Reflection

So what to do? What advice can we give to Jim, hoping to improve reflection on his experience as a leader by using feedback more effectively? These tips provide some starting thoughts.

1. Be open to feedback and evaluation. Try and remember that feedback will help you improve. It is important to focus on the task and not take any criticism personally. Sometimes feedback may not be well delivered. However, it may still contain useful information. Try to focus on what you have learnt and would do differently next time. You don’t have to agree with or act on all feedback but acknowledge to those giving feedback that you have listened and will reflect on what has been said. This helps create a climate which is safe.

2. Think of feedback as a jigsaw; a jigsaw that is never complete and probably has some pieces missing! Don’t just seek feedback from friendly peers or subordinates. Diversify your network. Think of 360° feedback as just one part of the jigsaw. Bear in mind the feedback may not be very accurate or valid and it may be contradictory. Feedback can help us to improve our performance if we take some time to reflect on what occurred.

3. Be specific when you seek others’ opinions alongside your own internal reflections. Feedback is best when it’s about observable behaviours - 'something that somebody does or says - or does not say or do when given the opportunity'. Don’t ask “how am I doing?” or “how did that go?”; try to focus on issues that you know you need to work on: “Did I communicate the decision clearly?”, “Was my presentation convincing and authentic?”; “Have I created a workable plan?”

4. Know what you want to know. It is useful when you are receiving feedback that you are clear about what you need to know. Sometimes the feedback you receive may not address the points you are interested in. Eurich suggests developing a few hypotheses (e.g. “I sometimes behave abrasively in meetings”) to explore issues of concern in more detail (“what do I do in meetings that people see as abrasive behaviour?”). Consider writing down some questions to test your hypotheses beforehand so you are ready. Be prepared to ask for more feedback or clarification about what has been said.

5. Reflect critically but not defensively on feedback: don’t just take it at face value. This is particularly true for 360° feedback which, though useful, can feel more “scientific” and objective than it actually is. When you receive feedback reflect on it and ask whether you understand it. Does it fit with other feedback you are getting and with your own self-perception? Ask yourself “does it matter?” and “do I want to act on this feedback and if so, how?” What have you learnt? What went well, what could have been improved? What would you do differently next time? Make sure you note some of this down and file it somewhere for reference before your next project.

6. Buckingham and Goodall suggest you focus on positive feedback and build on your strengths. Pause and replay moments of excellence; find out what works and how others experienced your behaviour; pay attention to it and ask for specific insights about why it worked well. "What did you see me do or hear me say that helped/worked for you?” “What didn't I do or say that would have been helpful?" With 360° feedback focus on your ‘second order’ strengths and think about how you can build on them rather than trying to improve your lowest rated weaknesses.

7. In order to overcome the perspective taking blind spot it is vital for senior leaders in particular to focus some of their reflective time on seeing the world from others' perspectives and not just deepening their understanding of their own perspectives.

8. Use Marshall Goldsmith's Feed-forward technique which is a great way to overcome some of the inherent problems of feedback. (I want to lead meetings in a more engaging way. What should I do in future?)

Feedback and reflection can be thought of as two sides of the same coin. Leaders often ask how they can get more and better feedback. But maybe that’s the wrong question. Given the difficulties of giving, receiving and using feedback maybe organisations should consider replacing feedback processes with time for systematic and purposeful reflection! So the question might be how can I reflect more often and more effectively.

“Asking for feedback creates a critic. Asking for advice creates a partner.” (Shane Parrish@Farnam Street)

What next?

To find out more about participating in a Taylor Clarke Reflective Community for Leaders please contact: Jade Birkin

Read Clive’s blog series on Reflective Practice for Leaders:

Clive Martlew has over 30 years experience as a leadership coach. He was previously Head of Learning and Leadership Development with the Scottish Government and at the UK Department for International Development (DFID). He is fascinated by the slippery question of how leaders learn.