Like all of you, I’ve had experiences where I had unwittingly offended or hurt someone. I have blind spots (these behaviors can cause problems in relationships because we aren’t aware of them). In each case, I sensed something was amiss and was able to address the reaction of the other person by asking for feedback.
I never intend to cause pain or suffering to others, so it’s important for me to hear others’ experience of me. I’ll admit it’s hard to ask for feedback because of my fear of what I’ll hear and how I might react.
That sounds very silly when I write it down. Because I know that feedback is like medicine; it may not taste very good in the moment, but over the long run it will make me a healthier (and better) person and leader.
Little by little, asking for feedback can break down those ego barriers that exist between yourself and others.
You don’t get to hear what you’d like to hear
But here’s the deal about the feedback that you ask for. You don’t get to hear what you wish you’d hear: you, in glowing terms; you, as the best leader around; you, as the great leader others want to follow.
If they’re being honest, you hear what they think. What they think may not be what you think of yourself. If you are in a position of authority, you might have to work a little harder at getting honest opinions, but this is true to different degrees for anyone asking for feedback. People may not want to hurt you or may be afraid of the repercussions of being honest in their assessments.
If you have any designs on being a better leader, it’s worth asking; there are significant growth opportunities in the asking and the receiving. So be a little vulnerable, put yourself out there and ask. It might initially sting a bit, but you’ll find your way through it.
In order to keep the future flow of feedback coming your way, here are some thoughts on how respond to it:
Think of it as a rare gift: It isn’t often that we get feedback. It usually doesn’t come unsolicited, so you have to ask for this wonderful gift that can enhance your ability to lead at your best. Someone giving their honest observations is like getting a gift carefully picked out especially for you.
Don’t be defensive: You get what you get when you ask. It’s someone’s perception. If you are quiet and listen to what they say, you just might find some truth in it, even if it is their truth. There isn’t any sense in denying or making excuses, because you have the choice to do with it as you please.
Express your thanks: This rare, customized gift deserves a heartfelt thank-you because it is so often just as hard to give as it is to receive. Someone has put themselves out there and risked your disapproval to be honest. Just say, “Thank you.”
Decide on your actions: Like any gift, you get to decide what to do with it. Will you tuck it away for a bit, thinking about your choices, or will you open it and begin to use it right away? Maybe you need better instructions on what to do with this feedback gift, in which case you can find someone to confide in.
Get back to them: At some point, it would encourage the gift-giver to continue their philanthropy if you let them know how you used their feedback. It’s also the kind and respectful thing to do. How about a handwritten note expressing your appreciation and a description of how you used their gift?
Treat feedback as the gift it is and you’ll enjoy the benefits of more of it. That’s good for you as a leader and as a human being.
Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a recovering corporate executive who has spent the past 12 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services, an executive-coaching firm that manages Fortune 500 corporate-coaching initiatives and coaches leaders to prepare them for bigger and better things.