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  • Dr. Jeff Doolittle

How Leaders Can Get the Feedback No One Wants to Give

Chances are, you are not getting all the performance or strategic feedback you want and need. You have the vision to be an effective leader and grow your business. But, no matter how often or how directly you ask, your request for feedback to help you improve gets lost in translation. Too frequently, when feedback is provided to senior leaders, it is too little and too late. The truth is, there are many reasons employees become less likely to provide constructive feedback as you move up in an organization. Developing good habits for getting constructive feedback improves your ability to grow your career and business.

Why Performance and Strategic Feedback Matters

Continuously learning and improving is critical for any organization and leader. Increased operational complexities associated with disruptive changes in the workplace make the importance of good leadership habits essential.

The best leaders ask more people and more frequently for feedback. 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 that don't.

Also, 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. 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.

"Feedback is the breakfast of champions." Ken Blanchard

Improved relationships reduce workplace stress and improve perceptions of respect and trust. Often the hierarchical design of senior leadership roles reduces the closeness of workplace relationships. Receiving and acting on feedback from followers improves relationships.

Silence is expensive. A lack of feedback negatively impacts outcomes and organizational effectiveness. It can also be a symptom of a lack of trust and engagement. Trust and engagement are essential to bringing out the best in teams and employees.

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.

When Leaders Overestimate Leadership Effectiveness

The higher you move within any organization, the less objective and less general feedback you tend to 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 the workplace in which people wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability in a specific area. Here is a short video with some examples and facts about this psychological effect.

As a senior leader being unaware of your leadership bad habits or overestimating your leadership skills is definitely not bliss.

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 their bad habits and can develop healthy habits.

Developing Good Feedback Habits

According to the Harvard Business Review, a recent study demonstrated that eight out of 10 employees felt their leader had an undiscussable flaw. 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 the various barriers for gettinging the feedback no one wants to give.

Ask and Act. Make feedback a regular part of your schedule, give examples, 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 normal 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.

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 that others have raised and how you are working to improve. Also, when providing balanced feedback, make sure you 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

Practice active listening. 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 you are practicing active listening, you are available to the other person. Verbal, nonverbal, and empathic listening are a few of the different active listening skills.

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.

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.

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 positively reinforce giving the feedback no one wants to share.

Hire an executive coach. Executive coaching focuses on moving toward the leader's future, assessing where they are currently, their goals for the future, and exploring and discovering the steps to get to their desired future. The ultimate goal is a change (e.g., behavioral, attitudinal, or motivational). As an International Coaching Federation certified coach, one of the core competencies is providing clear, articulate, and direct feedback.

Key Points: Getting the Feedback No One Wants to Give

There are many reasons senior leaders are likely not receiving the constructive feedback essential to growing their career and business. The best leaders ask more people and more frequently for feedback.

The 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 feedback no one wants to give.

Let's talk about how we can help you achieve your goals with transformational executive coaching and organizational solutions that work.


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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