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I lied about my enthusiasm for feedback

If you know me or have worked with me, you might have heard me often say, “I love feedback! Please tell me: what do I do well? What should I improve?” and “How can I help you?”

This was my mantra in various companies, aiming to cultivate a culture of feedback across teams and beyond. The intention was noble but here’s a candid darker confession – I was lying.

Yes, you read that right. I don’t actually like feedback.
But who does, really? Hearing about our imperfections and visible flaws isn’t pleasant.

Yet, feedback is indispensable!
The discomfort it brings is undeniable. Acknowledging our imperfections and hearing about our visible flaws can be a bitter pill to swallow. However, this discomfort is where growth begins.


Is Feedback necessary for growth?

I was reading the book “Insights – Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life” by Tascha Eurich, a recommendation from Dr. Delia McCabe and my mentor Natascha Speets. The book triggered my thoughts onto many themes, that I am still chewing on but today, particularly, I wanna talk about feedback. A suited theme for this year’s beginning.

Let’s face it, we all occasionally lie about our enthusiasm for feedback.
I see you, rolling your eyes and thinking “Well, no me! I always encourage and tell everyone I want feedback!”

How often have we sought feedback, secretly hoping for praise instead of constructive criticism?
It’s human nature to shy away from the uncomfortable truth. Our aversion to giving and receiving constructive feedback is rooted in human psychology. It is not necessarily safe, it can be a threat to our brains.
We worry about reactions – tears, anger, or worse. This fear leads to a culture where opinions about us are freely shared with everyone but us.
We prefer sharing our opinions about others with anyone but the person concerned.

How many times in your life have you shared something about someone with everyone except the person involved? Or how many times in your life have you embellished your constructive feedback concerning this person when it was time to deliver your feedback? This pattern is present in the workplace, where feedback is often limited to those obligatory, eye-roll-inducing yearly HR reviews.

So, how do we break this cycle and receive genuine, useful feedback more than once a year?


How can feedback be unhelpful or even harmful?

Before diving into useful actions we can all take, I want to address an elephant in the room.

While tools like regular 360 feedback and anonymous feedback sessions can kickstart the habit of giving and receiving feedback, they don’t always yield strong insights for the individual.
Sometimes, such feedback can even be damaging or hurtful. Particularly when those giving it don’t have the recipient’s best interests in mind.

I’ve been on the receiving end of this kind of feedback, and yes, I cried.
It’s a stark reminder that not all constructive feedback is “constructive”. The anonymity can sometimes give individuals a license to be unnecessarily harsh or critical, without considering the impact of their words on the receiver. This experience taught me the value of seeking feedback from sources who are committed to my growth and development.


What type of feedback should we seek, then?

“What did you think of my presentation?” or “How did I do?” invite vague, non-committal responses. Instead, seeking targeted feedback on particular aspects of your performance can yield more actionable insights.
We’ve all been there, haven’t we?
I, too, have made the mistake of asking for feedback without being specific, inadvertently encouraging vague, sugar-coated responses.

So, the key is specificity. Ask targeted questions about particular aspects of your work. Remember, you won’t get what you don’t ask for.
Looking for feedback is looking for insights about oneself.


Why should I be careful of the Mom Test and “honest” feedback?

A concept that resonated with me while I read the book is “The Mom Test.” It suggests that people, including those closest to us, may refrain from honest feedback to avoid hurting our feelings.
This scenario is prevalent in the professional sphere. Colleagues, fearing repercussions or discomfort, often hold back genuine critiques. Tascha Eurich called those people our Uncritical Lovers. They would do anything to spare our feelings.

On the other side, we have the Unloving critics. Those people might not be necessarily wrong in some of their harsh feedback but they don’t deliver it for you to grow. They deliver it because they simply don’t like you.

That hurts, right?
We cannot please everyone and as an initial people-pleaser, this realization took me time to digest.


Who should I ask for feedback from?

So we have to ask specific feedback but to whom? Reading the book and comparing my journey, I’ve learned that what I am doing is identifying ‘loving critics.’ These are individuals who offer necessary feedback – not solely praise or criticism – with your best interests at heart. They might include long-term peers or less familiar colleagues. What matters is their ability to provide balanced, constructive feedback aimed at your growth.

How to find them? Loving critics’ actions speak louder than words. They are the people who helped you when they did not need to. They just simply went the extra mile. They might not be particularly close to you, you might not know the details of their life or vice-versa. They are simply there and willing to help you.

Feedback can be tough. You want people who will stick with you, for you to see it through. 

Those points are especially crucial for anyone in an influencing or leadership position.


What is the CEO disease?

Self-awareness is crucial. Self-awareness is not just about what we see inside us.
External self-awareness comes from feedback.

The bad news? The higher we are in the hierarchy, the scarcer honest feedback becomes.
The higher up the ladder you are, the less likely you are to receive unfiltered, constructive feedback.

Several years ago I found the staggering statistic that 80% of employees see their leaders as uninspiring while 70% of the leaders rate themselves exactly the opposite.

A lot of studies (shared in the book) backed the idea that people see us more effectively than we see ourselves. For example, only subordinates can assess accurately their leaders’ performance and promotability.

Yet, how many leaders or influencers do not receive the necessary feedback? This phenomenon, which is referred to in the book and through several studies as the ‘CEO disease,’ is a significant barrier in leadership roles.

When leaders actively engage in feedback processes, they signal to their teams that growth and learning are valued over maintaining a facade of infallibility. This openness to learning and adapting becomes a cornerstone for innovation and agility within the organization. Moreover, leaders who advocate for and model effective feedback practices empower their teams. They create a safe space where employees feel comfortable sharing insights and ideas, leading to richer, more diverse perspectives in decision-making.

In essence, when leaders and people of influence in an organization champion the cause of feedback, they’re not just enhancing individual growth; they’re driving the evolution of the entire organization toward a more adaptive, resilient, and collaborative future.

Leaders need to foster an environment where feedback is welcomed and valued, regardless of hierarchy. It is an indispensable ingredient to building trust which is the cornerstone of building a high-performing team. And, as of August 2023, only 23% of people strongly agreed they trusted their leadership.
Leadership does not mean you are the best. Leadership means you go first, not that you are right, just you go first.

Actions speak louder than words. Look for those who have invested in you, offered help, and are willing to stick with you through your journey of improvement. It’s up to you to ask the right questions and be open to the answers. Put aside your ego.


So, what’s next?

I encourage you, my reader, my network, to reflect on your relationship with feedback. Whether you’re a Coach, a Leader in your field, or someone passionate about personal and professional development, embracing honest feedback is a pivotal step, even if, sometimes, it hurts the ego.

I’m here to share and learn alongside you. Let’s engage in a dialogue about breaking down the barriers to effective feedback and fostering a culture of growth and continuous improvement. If you’re looking for guidance, collaboration, or simply wish to share your experiences with feedback, I’m here to listen and help. Let’s grow together.

Thank you for reading, and I eagerly await your thoughts – and your honest feedback on this post!