For a leader, receiving honest feedback is equally scarce as required

If you don’t organize it, you will be getting less and less feedback as a leader as you climb up the ladder. And that’s not necessarily because you’re getting better and better…. What makes feedback so necessary for successful leaders, what makes it so difficult, and how do you make sure you make the best use of it for your leadership growth and effectiveness?

The need for feedback: You don’t know what you don’t know


Feedback is very useful to let us know “where we are”. Without feedback, you don’t know what the people who experience the impact of your leadership really experience. You are not aware of what they think you could improve.

In a previous blog about your impact as a leader, I mentioned that in 360o assessments I see few people who have a really good picture of how the impact they have on others. Although we often think so…

Marshall Goldsmith  has also researched this, among thousands of leaders. Imagine a group of people, for example your entire MT. When we ask everyone in such a group how ‘high’ they would score in that group, it turns out that:

✔ 70% think they are in the top 10% of their group

✔ 82% think they are in the top 20%

✔ 98.5% think they are in the top 50%

✔ 1.5% think they are in the bottom 50%….

Mathematically impossible! And this effect appears to get bigger as you rise up the ladder.

Beside not knowing “where you are”, without feedback, you also don’t know whether you’re becoming more effective or less effective as a leader.

An additional benefit of feedback is that it makes people more aware of your growth in leadership. And that in turn immediately contributes to the effectiveness of your leadership.

We all need feedback to see where we are, and to measure our progress when we’re on our way to where we want to be – Marshall Goldsmith

Two problems with feedback

According to Marshall Goldsmith, there are only two problems with negative feedback: We don’t want to hear it, and we don’t want to give it.

The reason we don’t want to hear it, is because negative feedback is not consistent with ourself-image and our subconscious rejects it. In our own self-image we are probably among the top 50% of our group. Negative feedback can give us a sense of failure, and our reactions to thát feeling are rarely positive.

The reason we don’t want to give it, is because our leaders and managers have power over us. They determine our salaries, career and job security. And no matter how well trained our leader is in receiving feedback  … We  still feel we’re delivering bad news.

What doesn’t make feedback any easier is that feedback looks at the past, at what didn’t go well there. That can shut us down, put us in a fixed mindset,  versus looking openly and curious to the future.

(In a later blog we’ll be talking about feedforward. A very nice way to move from “where you are now” to “where you want to be”.)

How to make feedback contribute effectively to leadership growth

Under the right conditions and with the right approach, feedback can be organised so that it contributes effectively to your leadership growth.

Create it yourself

Proactively asking for feedback is so much easier than waiting for feedback to come at you unsolicited.

Ask for explicit feedback, let the question come from your own will to grow in leadership.

Choose a number of people who have a good view of your leadership, and whose functioning is affected by it.

Create the conditions

As Marshall  Goldsmith coach, in a Stakeholder Centered Coaching program, we play a role in gathering and providing feedback. This allows us, among other things, to ensure that feedback

✔ is not colored by pain from the past, ✔ is based on truth, ✔ is intended to support, and ✔ focuses on improvement rather than judgment.

If you’re going to ask for feedback yourself, ask the people you’ve chosen to do so, explicitly to follow the above 4 guidelines. Most people  seem more than willing to do that!

Manage expectations

Let people know in advance what you will do when you are receiving feedback.

You’ll probably take it with you, think about it, decide whether or not to take action on it, and you’ll come back to the feedback givers later. Think about the steps you’re going to take, share those steps with your feedback givers and stick to that process.

The moment you receive the feedback, you’ll only say thank you for the feedback that you’ve received.

Receive feedback without judgment

No, receiving negative feedback is still no fun. For reasons we discussed before. While receiving positive feedback is usually pleasant.

But no matter what you get back, you only give one comment: Thank you for your feedback. Saying more than just ‘thank you for the feedback’’ at this moment, is a judgment on the content of that feedback. Which prevents people from giving feedback a next time…

On your way to more effective leadership

Just imagine that you had a real understanding of the impact and effectiveness of your leadership. That you would get clarity in “where am I now?” How would that help you in your growth in leadership, to get to “where I want to be?”

Perhaps a first step might be to become aware of your current behavior around feedback. Do you ever ask for feedback? Do you have a process for that? How do you respond to it?

✔ When did asking and receiving feedback go well, and what did you do that made it go so well? What did that bring you?

✔ Where did it not work so great, and what did you do that caused that to happen?

✔ What else could you have done in that situation?


This blog is one of a series of blogs in which I share my 10 key insights from the Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching approach. Insights that can help you become a more effective leader.  Read all 10 insights here

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