It’s Lonely At the Top: Why Leaders Need Feedback Too

By David Hassell

While there are many opportunities for team members and managers to receive feedback from their superiors, executives at the highest levels don’t often have this opportunity. They may get acknowledgement from some key stakeholders, but they often find themselves unsure of where to turn for feedback from within their organization.

In his book, What to Ask the Person In the Mirror, Harvard professor Robert S Kaplan discussed the issue of executive feedback in depth. Kaplan writes about a senior pharmaceutical company executive that he was working with who was having trouble achieving consensus among his leadership team.

When Kaplan asked him if he had considered getting employee feedback from his direct reports, he replied “Of course not; they’re the subordinates—it would be awkward for me to ask them for coaching. I’m the coach!”. With some encouragement, Kaplan got him to speak to five of his direct reports — although awkward at first, these conversations ended up yielding valuable information that strengthened the company.

Dealing with this issue should be a high priority in every organization, since it is impossible to create a culture where feedback is valued and encouraged, if employees at the most senior levels are not regularly receiving it themselves.

Despite Authority, Leaders Aren’t Perfect

We’ve all met that leader — the boss who considers himself above his staff and beyond reproach. After years of sitting in the c-suite with dozens of employees at his beck and call who keep their concerns to themselves in a desperate bid to placate the big boss, the authority has gone to his head. It is clouding his judgement and it is affecting the company. He is complacent and that complacency is dangerous.

This scenario is all too common. While — in most cases — leaders are put in place because they have the knowledge, experience and skills to get the job done, their inherent expertise can sometimes make them feel entitled to their position, and feel they don’t need feedback. Not only does this type of arrogance put the organization at risk, but it creates a toxic environment where staff do not feel that their opinions are valued.

Creating a culture of feedback — one where regular, candid communication is welcomed — must begin at the executive level. Leaders must been seen actively seeking out feedback with humility and implementing that feedback in order for employees to feel comfortable doing the same.

If It’s Broke, Fix it

Leaders may not know they are doing something wrong, or worse, when they are doing a great job. Just as employees need to be shown value and appreciation, so too do leaders. According to renowned leadership expert Edgar Papke, the solution is quite simple, yet often stigmatized and seen (erroneously) as a sign of weakness: leadership coaching.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that coaching is the most effective form of leadership development and that all leaders—regardless of their pursuits, goals and aspirations— benefit from coaching”, writes Papke. He explains that coaching has been a part of human evolution for thousands of years, and is a natural result of our human desire to explore our limits, to grow and to improve.

Papke argues that feedback lies at the core of coaching, and that access to quality coaching and guidance can help leaders navigate the sometimes unpleasant and uncomfortable waters of feedback and come out better managers on the other side.

“What makes coaching different from other forms of teaching and instruction is that

regardless of our level of competency and performance capability, we can always get better by building on what we already know and are proficient in doing”, he explains. “For me, coaching implies and reminds us that no matter how good or great we get at what we do; there always exists the possibility to do it better”.

Feedback: It’s Good for Your Health

“Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough to motivate them.”
– John C. Maxwell

As a leader, you may put yourself in a compromising position when it comes to your health. Especially if you focus your attention on only bettering your team, and not yourself. As we can see with the Kaplan example, the Pharmaceutical executive was increasingly ignorant and assumed feedback was not for upper level management, including himself. There are no long term health benefits in doing this. Why?

Leaders are under an exceptional amount of pressure that most employees will never experience. Their unique level of responsibility comes with unique challenges — sleepless nights, anxiety and worry about how their employees and their company are doing. Without feedback they may not know what they are doing poorly, or well and place their own health on the line.

What if an employee has a suggestion for a process that will save the company thousands of dollars or hundreds of hours? What if the leader’s condescending ways are the cause of such high employee turnover? Without the opportunity for a team to give the leader this information, he/she is limiting the exponential success of their company, and sanity.

One of the best ways to reduce this stress is to actively solicit feedback. This open sharing of ideas will provide leaders with an accurate, up-to-date picture of the overall health of the organization and their team, which can go a long way towards reducing the stress that comes from simply not knowing how things are really going.

Taking the time to put yourself in your team’s shoes will help you understand the daily inner workings of the organization that you might miss from your bird’s eye view. Hearing first hand from your staff about all the things that are going well will help you feel more confident in your ability as a leader, and knowing that you are actively seeking out and fixing the problems in your company will help you sleep a little easier at night.

Because at the end of the day, leaders are just regular old human beings. They succeed, screw up, worry and celebrate just like everyone else. And, most importantly, they need feedback to grow — just like anyone else.

When leaders are at their best, so are the organizations that they run. Creating a culture where feedback and personal development are considered integral parts of the leadership journey is an investment in long-term economic success.

Where do you go for leadership advice? Share your favorite resource in the comments below, or tweet us at @15Five!


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