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How Leaders Can Get the Feedback No One Wants to Give

Most leaders are not getting the feedback they want and need. Evidence suggests that eight out of ten employees feel their leader has an undiscussable flaw. You have the vision to be a great leader and grow your business. But, no matter how often or how directly you ask others for feedback, your request gets ignored or is focused on your strengths. Frequently, when critical feedback is provided to executives, it is too little and too late. The unfortunate truth is that there are many rational reasons why employees are less likely to discuss constructive feedback with a leader as they move up in an organization. Developing these seven constructive feedback habits helps you increase revenue and avoid costly mistakes by getting the performance and strategic feedback no one wants to give.

Why Performance and Strategic Feedback Matters

Silence is expensive. Continuously learning and improving is critical for any organization and leader. The operational complexities associated with disruptive changes in the workplace make the importance of leadership habits increasingly vital. The benefits associated with receiving feedback are well documented.

  • Evidence from a study spanning more than ten years and over 50,000 executive leaders revealed that leaders who ask for feedback are significantly more effective than those who don't.

  • In a global study of more than 100 workplace improvement strategies, fair and accurate informal feedback had the most significant positive impact on employee performance and engagement. The evidence suggests that feedback improves workplace performance by up to 39%.

  • Feedback improves decision-making and creates a better environment for innovation. Understanding the implicit and explicit needs and wants of followers and customers leads to creativity and decisions that are valued.

  • The common hierarchical design in organizations naturally reduces the closeness of workplace relationships for executives. Receiving and acting on feedback from followers improves relationships. Improved relationships minimize workplace stress and improve perceptions of respect and trust.

  • Drama in the workplace is on the rise. Feedback allows for productive conflict and helps minimize the risk of avoiding conflict that leads to workplace strife. A workplace with a strong feedback culture makes leaders and followers more comfortable with difficult conversations.

"Feedback is the breakfast of champions." Ken Blanchard

You may have heard the saying, Ignorance is bliss. I know I have used that saying more than once. However, being unaware of your bad leadership habits or overestimating your leadership skills is not bliss as a leader.

Lacking self-awareness limits a leader's ability to realize professional and personal goals, like trying to navigate a ship without a compass. Self-aware leaders are not naive about bad habits and can develop healthy ones.

The higher you move within any organization, the less objective and general feedback you receive. Limited self-awareness prevents an accurate assessment of leadership competence and strategic plans. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a relatively common cognitive bias in which people with little self-awareness overestimate their knowledge or ability in a specific area.

7 Good Feedback Habits

The more constructive feedback you receive, the more practical decisions you can make that grow your career and business. The following are seven proven strategies to overcome various barriers to getting the feedback no one wants to give.

Good Feedback Habit #1: Ask and act

Make feedback a regular part of your schedule, give examples, and ask specific open-ended questions. Simply asking if you have any feedback is too vague, and you will have more success when your question includes some context. Such as, do you feel your ideas are being heard? Or how could we improve our one-to-one meetings? The more regular you make getting feedback, the less risky it will become (if you handle it well).

Not taking action on the feedback you receive is one way to make sure you won't get the feedback you need in the future. Taking action doesn't always mean exactly fixing what was asked. Sometimes, you need to manage expectations by letting them know what you can or can not do. When you do take action, you always want to let others know why you are taking action. Help explicitly connect your steps back to the feedback provided.

Good Feedback Habit #2: Be the change you want to see

If you want feedback, you should lead by example. When possible, be transparent and share the tough constructive feedback others have raised and how you work to improve. Also, when providing balanced feedback, let others know what they are doing is right. Giving others feedback creates reciprocity.

“We must be the change we wish to see in the world” Gahndi

Good Feedback Habit #3: Actively listen

Actively listening is your ability to hear and improve mutual understanding. Receiving feedback is not a synonym for listening. When you actively listen, you pay attention, show interest, suspend judgment, reflect, clarify, summarize, and share to gain clarity and understanding. When practicing active listening, you are available to the other person. Verbal, nonverbal, and empathic listening are a few active listening skills.

Good Feedback Habit #4: Cultivate a community

As in life, leadership is better within a community. Asking for feedback is a sign of strength and not weakness. Like a pyramid, most organizational charts narrow at the top, providing few opportunities for a role-based community. As leaders move up the corporate ladder, the healthy habit of enhancing community requires more intentional effort. Peer advisory groups, communities of practice, and affinity groups are increasingly popular leadership communities to leverage for feedback.

Good Feedback Habit #5: Practice open strategic planning

Employees are often motivated by giving feedback when they see that it impacts senior leader behaviors and company actions. Unfortunately, most organizations keep their strategies a secret. On average, 95% of employees don't know or understand their organization's strategies.

Good Feedback Habit #6: Say thank you

Your world is perfectly designed for the results you are getting—your reactions to feedback in actions and words matter. Increasing the frequency of behavior requires providing positive reinforcement to overcome the negative consequences of the behavior. Simply saying thank you can be a meaningful way to reinforce giving feedback positively.

Good Feedback Habit #7: Engage a coach

Coaching provides you with clear and direct feedback. It moves you closer to your future, assessing where you are currently and your goals for the future and exploring and discovering the steps to get to your desired future. The ultimate goal is a change (e.g., behavioral, attitudinal, or motivational) you want to make.

Key Points: Getting the Feedback No One Wants to Give

Leaders are likely not receiving the constructive feedback essential to growing their careers and businesses for many reasons. The best leaders ask more people and more frequently for feedback.

Chances are that you are not receiving the performance and strategic feedback you want and need. However, the proven strategies outlined in this article help you to overcome the various barriers and get the input no one wants to give.


Grenny, J. & Maxfield, B. (2019). How leaders can ask for the feedback no one want to give them. Harvard Business Review.

Kaplan, R. (2011). Top executives need feedback-here's how they can get it. McKinsey Quarterly.

Kaplan, R., Norton, D. (2005). The office of strategy management. Harvard Business Review. 83(10):72-80

Kruger, J. & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing ones own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Toegel, G. & Barsoux, J. (2019). Its time to tackle your team's undiscussable. MIT Sloan Management Review.

Zenger, J. & Folkman, J. (2013). Overcoming Feedback Phobia: Take the First Step. Harvard Business Review.

Zumaeta, J. (2018). Lonely at the top: How do senior leaders navigate the need to belong? Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies.


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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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