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Leadership Blasphemy

By: Dr. John R. Grinnell Jr

Discovering our strengths is a wonderful process of self-awareness. And leading with strengths is advisably powerful. However, many of us have been innocently misled in believing there is little value in knowing our weakness--especially if it involves critical feedback. Further, I believe an over-focus on strengths and avoidance of critical feedback actually slows people in discovering and utilizing their personal leadership potential--thusly reducing the vitality of the organizations they serve.

Cult-like, many have jumped on the bandwagon and scoffed at those who believe there is great value in critical feedback. Managers who provide critical feedback are often viewed poorly and sent to “charm school” to neutralize their “negative affect” with their associates. On the surface, this appears to make sense, as some people do provide feedback in less-than-elegant and respectful ways. But this judgment is often biased toward “comfort” and done with a deep misunderstanding of what critical feedback is and what it can and can’t do. And more importantly, what it can teach us to become better leaders at the emotional level.

Our reaction to critical feedback is always personal, but instead of exploring and understanding our emotional and defensive reactions to feedback, we almost always blame the one giving the feedback. In fact there are better ways of providing critical feedback that are worth learning, but I also believe the real development opportunity is using critical feedback as a way to “carve-out” a space inside ourselves that can hear critical feedback without a mind-closing emotional response. With time and proper practice, the leader that runs toward the fire of critical feedback is more likely to learn to stay focused and maintain a state of calm awareness amidst feedback, thereby being enabled to execute with more rational and fact-based decision making. Some call this critical thinking; I call it deep self-awareness that understands human nature, the purpose of defense mechanisms and of oneself.

Why Does Critical Feedback Hurt or Why Do We Like Positive Feedback So Much?

Information is the lifeblood of all organizations and is the basis of a leader’s effectiveness. People benefitted by proper and pragmatic deep self-awareness training are able to move toward a point where they are not buffeted by their inevitable emotional reactions to critical feedback. In my opinion, this is essential for realizing leadership potential. In engineering terms, these people have learned to build a psychological “pressure vessel” that can effectively and healthily withstand their inevitable internal, emotional discomfort with feedback. We don’t achieve this competency by avoiding critical feedback, but rather by bringing awareness during it. A starting point is understanding where the negative emotion we associate with critical feedback comes from.

Ego Never Wants to Be Wrong

Words can hurt, and in this era of highly politicized and weaponized media this is truer than ever. However, when taken correctly, “words can never hurt me” is actually true. In fact, we hurt ourselves when critical feedback is shared with us. That is, our ego hurts us—yet we continue to teach wrongly that the cause of the emotional pain comes from the feedback and from the feedback giver. Valuable and accurate or not, feedback is another’s perception or often a projection from their beliefs. Regardless, it is their reality that is shared and worth exploring to see what benefit lies therein. However, we often run (in anger or fear) from further dialogue and thereby block clarity of what the other is trying to tell us.

Taboos against critical feedback can become a destructive framework when taken too far as it becomes a type of tacit interpersonal collusion: “I will feel good and like you if you are polite and see me only as my idealized image of myself, but if you don’t I will feel hurt, angry or fearful, and not trust or advocate for you anymore.” This is how we can get trapped into listening to the advice of a fool we like, yet block input from a genius or experienced colleague we don’t trust.

Blind Spots

Very few, if any, employees drive to work each day thinking about how they can screw up. When we make mistakes, we usually do so because we had a blind spot and misjudged a decision or action that we chose. Over the past 30+ years working with managers, I have noticed the most consequential blind spots are defended the most. How many times have you seen employees blame themselves for being fired? Or have you given performance feedback in the most accurate and respectful way you could, but they kept pointing their fingers back at others and were never able to make a necessary change in their behavior? Again, ego does not want to be wrong.

Positive Culture Can Be Dangerous

Over-emphasis on positive feedback by a CEO and other senior executives can, over time, establish a taboo on giving accurate, timely and useful critical feedback between employees. It ends up with people telling each other half-truths! In some industries, such as healthcare and construction, the consequences of a “pleasing” culture can actually harm people. In others, the lack of critical feedback can create lost quality, time, efficiency and profit in the longer term, which can put the organization into an entropic (slow-death) state of underperformance with repeated errors or huge lost opportunity cost.

What Can You Do?

  • If you find you are becoming emotional and perhaps defensive when receiving critical feedback, shift your consciousness to a state of curiosity about what the other is saying. Curiosity is the antidote to ego-based defense.
  • Optimize your focus on strengths and critical feedback by starting development at the top of the organization and training people there in deep self-awareness so they can hear critical feedback and maintain a fact-based leadership state.
  • If someone is using critical feedback as a battering ram, immediately and privately, give them direct critical feedback about that practice and provide self-awareness-based leadership development so that they can learn a better way.
  • Use terms such as “on-purpose” and “off-purpose,” instead of “good” and “bad.” Remember that mistakes are often made through unawareness and usually the intention to do well has been there all along.
  • Continue to provide training in how to give feedback in a way that will create less disturbance of another’s ego. But don’t sacrifice a target of “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” in a timely manner.
  • With people who have developed mastery and are able to maintain an emotionally mature “pressure vessel,” at the beginning and end of each meeting acknowledge that the truth is allowed, and that not pandering to ego is to be the focus. To accelerate development, check out our Leadership JumpStart® program on our new website.
  • When you are hurt by feedback, as we all are from time to time, own the hurt as yours and discuss it with the feedback giver in a way that does not blame them for your bad feelings. Do not avoid this responsible discussion. The relationship is important as it is the artery through which information, the “lifeblood of all organizations,” flows.

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