“The only way to discover your strengths is through feedback…”

—Peter Drucker

During my first experience as a team leader, I had a great manager who was way ahead of his time in his leadership development practices. In an era of annual reviews and forced rankings, he was a coach and mentor who set the bar high then supported his team leaders to reach it. He continuously checked-in with us and used our mistakes as opportunities to help us grow as leaders. He also set a requirement to regularly seek input from my team on how I could improve. As a young, inexperienced team leader I knew that I was making plenty of mistakes, so the idea of asking my direct reports for feedback – and worse, sharing it with my boss – was terrifying. Reality, however, was quite different. As I made it a habit to gather regular feedback, the effect on my team’s performance and their job satisfaction was so positive that I quickly became addicted to the practice.

Over the past twenty-plus years, I’ve had many conversations with team leaders in which I suggested they reach out to their team and peers for critical feedback – and every time the team leader cringes at the idea. Many of those team leaders choose to remain in the dark – not only failing to seek out critical feedback, but actively discouraging it.

Since that first experience, I’ve learned that I wasn’t alone in my “feedback anxiety”, I also discovered there is overwhelming evidence in research, books, articles, and training programs that support the connection between a team leader seeking constructive critical feedback from team members and the team’s performance. Over the past twenty-plus years, I’ve had many conversations with team leaders in which I suggested they reach out to their team and peers for critical feedback – and every time the team leader cringes at the idea. Many of those team leaders choose to remain in the dark – not only failing to seek out critical feedback but actively discouraging it.

The Draw of the Dark Side

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, co-authors of the bestselling book The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, developed a widely used behavioral assessment for leaders – the Leadership Practices Inventory. Across more than one million assessments, one factor consistently receives the absolute lowest rating: “(He or she) asks for feedback on how his/her actions affect other people’s performance.”

So why do leaders choose to avoid feedback, even when they have ample evidence that shows its benefits? Part of the answer can be found by looking at feedback in the context of the three universal psychological needs that drive motivation and wellbeing at work. Those needs are:

  • Purpose. Purpose is what gets us out of bed every day believing that we are doing something worthwhile, making a difference to our colleagues or other important relationships, and making progress towards achieving our own aspirations.
  • Competence. Competence is the ability to perform the individual tasks that make up the day-to-day work that we do in pursuit of realizing our purpose.
  • Autonomy. Autonomy is our innate drive to exercise control over our role and priorities at work to realize our purpose.

When those three needs are aligned and being met, people find themselves energized and engaged by their work – and open to feedback to continue to improve. For leaders, the challenge is that greater responsibility and power comes with much higher expectations in terms of their competencies. As a leader internalizes those expectations, and as they begin to judge themselves – or see themselves as judged by others – on those expectations, the stage is set for a leader to choose the comfort of darkness rather than dealing with the light of critical feedback.

I experienced this a few years ago when the head of one of the divisions of a tech company moved to a new role and his replacement was highly-motivated, but very inexperienced – lacking the competencies she needed as a leader. The new Head found great purpose in her new role and was driven to make a difference, but the gap in her leadership capabilities caused her to be highly sensitive to potential damage to her image. She quickly came to see feedback as drawing attention to her lack of experience, causing her to not only avoid asking for feedback but proactively discouraging it. The result was, unfortunately, predictable – both the performance of the division and the wellbeing of the team suffered for years until she moved on to a new role.

The draw to remain in the dark is powerful when the bright light of feedback feels like a threat to a leader’s self-image or the legitimacy of their being in their role. Given the significant benefits of feedback, the challenge for organizations is knowing how to encourage team leaders to develop the habit of getting feedback. Answering that requires digging a little deeper into the root cause of why some team leaders feel threatened by feedback and others don’t.

The Path to the Light

Organizations that depend on teams for their success must maintain high expectations of their team leaders and their performance. It is equally essential for these organizations to encourage team leaders to embrace self-assessment and feedback, empowering their leaders to excel. Encouraging team leaders to seek critical feedback, begins with understanding and addressing the root cause of their feedback anxiety – the level of psychological safety they experience within their organization.

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson describes psychological safety as a “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking, and a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.” Genuine psychological safety enables people to feel they can trust others and be themselves. Importantly, psychological safety is a two-way street, which applies to the team leader as much as it does to members of the team. Moreover, psychological safety for team leaders must permeate the organization and allow for the additional risks that come with a leadership role.

Fostering a culture of psychological safety, and instilling norms that encourage team leaders to seek feedback, requires an environment in which shedding light on competency gaps and areas to improve is seen as an opportunity rather than a threat. Only when leaders feel safe will they avoid the dark and fully embrace feedback and self-assessment, enabling them to fully realize the purpose of their work.

Three Actions to Avoid the Dark side

Most leaders are sensitive to the high expectations that come with their role. If a leader feels judged or criticized based upon feedback on their performance in the role, then most will prefer to remain in the dark versus risking their self-image. As in the example of the Head of the tech division, her aversion to feedback had its roots in a culture that was psychologically unsafe. Expectations were set very high, coaching was almost non-existent, and people were quick to criticize. Within such a culture, only the most secure and experienced leaders would be likely to actively seek critical feedback from team members and peers.

The evidence to support the connection between a team leader seeking constructive critical feedback, and the effectiveness and well-being of both the team and team leader, is well established. Equally well understood is that feedback-seeking behavior is a complex goal-oriented process that involves team leader psychological needs, self-assessment, and self-image. Organizations and especially human resource development teams can go a long way to ensure that team leaders maintain the best-practice of seeking feedback with three actions:

  1. Establish an organizational culture and team norms that ensure psychological safety. Psychological safety is the key to keeping team leaders out of the dark and making feedback a habit within a team and across an organization.
  2. Recognize that there will be gaps, and ensure the rewards of visibly addressing them exceed any risks. Frame feedback as learning, versus evaluation and judgment.
  3. Make critical-feedback from subordinates and peers a habit by establishing a regular heartbeat of gathering, mapping, and tracking feedback.

For team leaders, my experience and observation is that by making feedback a habit, you will be rewarded with a stronger sense of purpose, greater team effectiveness, and you’ll improve your own wellbeing as well as that of your team.


https://hbr.org/2014/01/find-the-coaching-in-criticism

https://hbr.org/2014/01/your-employees-want-the-negative-feedback-you-hate-to-give

https://hbr.org/2014/02/to-get-honest-feedback-leaders-need-to-ask

Fast, N. J., Burris, E. R., & Bartel, C. A. (2014). Managing to stay in the dark: Managerial self-efficacy, ego defensiveness, and the aversion to employee voice. Academy of Management Journal, 57(4), 1013-1034.


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