Three reasons why leaders struggle with feedback

Ignorance, complacency and fear of being hurt

Isn’t it paradoxical that leaders repeatedly do the opposite of what they actually want? On the one hand, we have a strong need for success, for learning and for making strong decisions. On the other hand, we usually make completely inadequate use of the very tool that moves us forward, offers complementary perspectives and exposes blind spots: feedback. Feedback is the quintessence and DNA of growth. Various studies show us that leaders are really not good at handling this tool.

Studies show that leaders are insufficiently equipped in both giving and receiving feedback. Managers in need of harmony shy away from critical discussion with their employees. They often avoid hot topics such as lack of performance or inadequate, disrespectful behavior. Choleric managers, on the other hand, react impulsively, aggressively and usually hurtfully when someone contradicts them or when mistakes happen.

A large proportion of managers have difficulty dealing constructively with criticism

A study by Leadership IQ (2017) reveals that only 45% of employees at a wide variety of companies in the U.S. and Canada say their leaders always or usually respond constructively to work-related problems. This gap between the corporate demand for productive feedback loops on the one hand and the lack of feedback fitness on the other hand increases further with the following fact: When making suggestions for improvement, 55% of the respondents never or rarely experience reinforcement from their manager. The lack of reinforcement for new ideas and improvements, as well as the inability to react productively and encouragingly to mistakes, only becomes more problematic and obvious with the shift to agile methods. The effect is that employees express themselves less explicitly and neither report pain points nor improvement opportunities back to their boss. As a consequence, employees feel less connected to their company and are more susceptible to external offers. Fluctuation increases, which is neither conducive to productivity nor to a strong team spirit.

Three reasons: Ignorance, smugness and fear of being hurt

Why do many leaders have trouble accepting sincere praise and dealing constructively with criticism? I will summarize the most important three reasons here:

  1. Ignorance – the convenient way: Leaders with a few years of experience – from executives to team leaders – develop a stable self-image. However, since none of us recognizes our own face, gestures, and most importantly, our own hidden patterns, we live with blind spots. To confront these, we need the willingness to look in our own mirror and reflect. This takes time, courage and the will to question ourselves. However, many executives take the more comfortable route, ignoring the mirror as much as possible and focusing on technical issues. This is diametrically opposed to a constructive feedback culture.
  2. Smugness: Positive feedback such as a compliment, praise, or appreciative gesture can be understood either as a chumming-up approach or as a warm-up tactic before an impending counterattack. Therefore, the recipient keeps a low profile and stays under cover. It is also often the case that strength and self-confidence are pronounced in the self-image of many managers. Praise is then dismissed with a smug remark like “It’s obvious…” or “I don’t need stroking.”
  3. Self-protection – fear of being hurt: New York Times bestselling authors Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen show in “Thanks for the Feedback” that the core problem in dealing with critical feedback is our defense mechanism We don’t want to be hurt. Whether we are experiencing a well-intentioned suggestion for improvement, a maneuvering critique, a hint about our leadership behavior, or even an outright attack, critical feedback often has an unsettling effect. Even if the feedback comes from a positive intention, there is a danger that a basic fear will resound within us. Leadership expert Richard Barrett aptly summarizes our fears in the following three beliefs: “I don’t have enough” (need for financial and material security), “I am not accepted” (need for connection and acceptance), and “I am not good enough” (need to be needed and to perform).

Increase feedback fitness: How do I take feedback more confidently?

Once we become aware of these three tendencies of ignorance, complacency and self-protection, we can honestly ask ourselves: To what extent does this apply to me? Am I ready and willing to strengthen my leadership skills? If we conclude that we want to improve our feedback fitness, we should ideally get a trainer (e.g., executive coach) and develop a feedback training program. You will have the strongest impact for yourself, but also for the organization, if you become more confident in receiving feedback. The following two questions will help you develop a personal fitness plan:

  1. What leadership behavior do I want to improve? And who should give me feedback on this?
  2. What is my usual reaction when I hear critical feedback? How could I react more purposefully / constructively?

If we become better receivers of feedback, voices such as “He really listens to me” or “She really took my criticism seriously” or “My suggestion will now be implemented in other departments” may reach our ears more often in the future.

Als Transformations-Coach mit über zwanzig Jahren Erfahrung im Begleiten von Führungskräften in Entwicklungs-, Krisen- und Burnout-Situationen leitet mich folgende Überzeugung: Nachhaltiger Erfolg basiert auf einer inneren Haltungsänderung sowie auf einer Verkörperung dessen, wofür wir stehen. Zusammen mit meinen Partnern in der Trans-In AG bieten wir Executive Coachings, Assessment Center sowie Organisationsentwicklungen an.

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