Jacob, a manager in a medium sized public relations firm in Saskatchewan, prided himself on his management skills. He considered himself to be an understanding, fair-minded and honest leader. He believed his staff was extremely happy with his supervision style and he received few complaints. Jacob welcomed the opportunity to conduct a “360 review” of his leadership. The review tapped every aspect of his performance as assessed by not only bosses but subordinates and peers. When the results came in he was confident that he’d get a better than average grade.
Jacob was in for a shock. Instead of the glowing account of the success of his leadership practices that he’d been happily anticipating, he was told he was not very empathic, seemed to play favourites and did not listen well to others. Jacob then became defensive, questioned how the test items were worded and wondered if respondents really understood the exercise.
Obtaining feedback about one’s leadership is key to improving. Without feedback and the learning that accompanies it, it is difficult to make progress and easy to stagnate in any leadership role at all levels of the organization.
However, many leaders find themselves bereft of feedback, lacking awareness of their impact on subordinates or harbouring inflated senses of their accomplishments.
In our practice, we have encountered seven types of leaders who have difficulty obtaining and using feedback constructively.
Defensive Leaders When defensive leaders receive feedback, as Jacob did, they may react by pointing out how the employee is wrong about them. They tend to claim the information they receive is somehow faulty and that if the bearer of the bad news had their facts straight, they’d know better than to criticize the leader. They tend to argue back rather than accept what is being said and digesting it later. They may feel personally attacked. These kinds of leaders make it difficult for staff to give them feedback. As a result, people tend to avoid discussing issues with these types of leaders. The manager loses out in the end since difficulties with processes tend not to get discussed especially when managers feel the need to defend their decisions at all costs.
Victim-based Leaders Leaders who cast themselves as victims during difficult interactions with staff tend to stave off feedback effectively. Typical reactions include “How can you say that? I really go the bat for you guys.” or “I put in a lot of time and this is what I get?” Instead of seeing the opportunity to delve into what staff are saying, the manager or supervisor will try to elicit sympathy or guilt. By taking a victim role, managers like these convince staff they cannot bear being given the straight goods.
Indifferent Leaders These kinds of managers couldn’t care less. They’ll “thank” subordinates for their comments then promptly forget all about the discussion. They can tend to feel superior and come across as patronizing when employees are trying to discuss leader errors. They tend to be smug. Staff soon feel that providing the leader information about how he or she could be more helpful is a waste of time.
Aggressive Leaders Managers who become aggressive with negative feedback tend to twist staff statements to point out employee shortcomings. Rather than discussing staff concerns, aggressive leaders are adept at making the issue a staff defect instead. They also tend to retaliate if they hear criticism. These managers’ staff may find themselves getting less desirable assignments, being passed over for promotion or receiving fewer perks. Aggressive managers may argue loudly with, or harangue staff who have an issue they’d like to discuss. Subordinates tend to reduce their involvement with these types of leaders and decide, rightly, that giving them feedback can be dangerous.
Rationalizers Leaders who fall into this category tend to come up with a myriad of reasons for their behaviour that provide an excuse not to take staff feedback seriously. They indicate that they were under pressure when that decision was made, they observe that the situation to which staff is referring is “rare” or it was out of their hands. In the worst case, these folks tell staff that if they change how they word their feedback, they’d be more effective communicators implying that the message couldn’t get heard because of staff’s faulty feedback style. Either way, the message doesn’t get through and the leader fails to obtain the information necessary to do a better job.
Inadequate Leaders Leaders who feel inadequate have a difficult time receiving positive feedback. They tend to deflect staff compliments and are unable to accept staff acknowledgement. They are uncomfortable and unable to internalize positives. Staff find these leaders to be so ill at ease with positive feedback that they decide not to make the manager uncomfortable. It helps to be able to accept positive feedback graciously and believe staff’s genuine efforts to support particular leadership practices.
If you observe any of these traits when you receive feedback, there is something that can be done. First, look at yourself. What are you doing to reduce, deflect, or refuse useful feedback. Decide to resist the temptation to become defensive, play poor-me, shoot the messenger or let information slide off you. Identify the “grain of truth” in feedback you have trouble accepting. There can always be something of use in what staff say and adopting that attitude will ensure staff willingness to give you feedback in the first place. Recognize that giving feedback to a superior is not easy, and staff who do, may be taking a risk.
As for Jacob, once he recovered, he set about changing his leader practices by resisting the urge to be defensive with his boss, colleagues and subordinates. He was able to remain open, curious and willing to entertain other possibilities that made him more approachable and effective.
Leaders who are able to elicit helpful feedback from subordinates tend to grow, adapt to change and make better decisions. Staff who can freely give feedback tend to innovate, make suggestions on how to do things more efficiently and feel engaged and worthwhile. Shutting down behaviours that may mute feedback is key to leader development and organizational success.
Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.