The business literature is awash with tales of organizations (and leaders) that struggle to adapt to change.  If you boil this down to its very essence, a crucial first step is to appreciate the need for change, and in order for that to occur, it’s crucial that the right information is finding its way to the boardroom.

I’m sure we’ve all worked in places where that doesn’t happen however, where bad news gets sanitized on its way up the organization.  As a consequence, leaders are often unaware of the true state of affairs, and it’s perhaps not surprising that change is so hard when they don’t appreciate the need for it to begin with.

The need for candour

A recent study from the University of Michigan highlighted the importance of humility in a leader.  They found that something as seemingly straightforward as seeking feedback from one’s team has a significant impact on the bottom line of the organisation.

“We provide the first evidence that seeking feedback from top management team members is an important avenue through which CEOs can strengthen the team and improve firm performance,” the researchers say.

The positive impact occurs because when the CEO solicits feedback, it gives confidence to their executive team, which in turn results in higher performance levels throughout the organisation.  Indeed, the study suggests that such humble acts are more powerful than more heroic deeds, such as articulating a vision for the company.

It underlines that you don’t have to be the stereotypical alpha male top dog to be successful, and indeed being so may be harming your attempts to be both innovative and high performing as an organisation.  So how can you go about soliciting feedback from your team?

Understanding feedback

As with most things, the first step in improving how you receive feedback is to understand the dilemma that you face when receiving it.  Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone have identified three triggers that prompt a negative reaction to feedback:

  1. The truth trigger is fired due to the content of the feedback, and your inherent disagreement with it.
  2. The relationship trigger goes off when the person giving you the feedback matters as much as the actual feedback itself. Maybe they lack the credibility to tell you what is wrong, or maybe you feel that you’ve built up enough credit with them to have earned some slack.
  3. The final trigger is all around identity and is fired when the feedback hits at the core of who you are as a person.

Most of these triggers are perfectly natural, so once you’ve understood that you have them, you can begin working to overcome them.  Heen and Stone go on to identify some ways you can do this and begin to get better at receiving feedback.

The first of which involves a degree of self-awareness.  They suggest that given the long history many of us have with receiving feedback, we should by now be reasonably proficient at understanding how we react to it.

They also recommend trying to detach what was said from who actually said it.  They suggest that if the feedback is indeed accurate, then who gave it should be irrelevant to you.  As the triggers above suggest, this is not always easy, but it’s a good process to try and get into.

It is also important to understand what kind of feedback you’re getting.  Some feedback just tells you what is what.  Others will attempt to provide some coaching alongside their evaluation of you.  Both are important types of feedback, but it’s not always easy to distinguish between the two.

Arguably the most important part of the process however is to be open and receptive to feedback.  If you actively seek it out then you are much less likely to be offended by any that is sent your way.  With this in mind, it’s also recommended that you are as focused as possible with your requests.  Heen and Stone suggest asking for feedback in one particular area at a time.

Having open ears, and an open mind, is undoubtedly crucial for fresh ideas and fresh thinking to thrive in your organisation.  Hopefully these tips will go some way to ensuring you avoid creating an echo chamber in your boardroom and give your organisation the best chance of success.