““Any airplane is off track much of the time but just keeps coming back to the flight plan. Eventually, it arrives at its destination. This is true with all of us as individuals, families, or organizations. They key is to have an ‘end in mind’ and a shared commitment to constant feedback and constant course correction.” — Stephen R. Covey (from the book Living the 7 Habits)”
The higher leaders rise, the more difficult it becomes for them to get honest and meaningful feedback, particularly on what they need to improve, do differently in order to become more effective. Their people often tell them what they think their leaders want to hear, rather than what the leaders need to hear, for reasons that are understandable. Therefore, as a Leadership Coach, I am often called on to gather confidential 360-Feedback in support of leaders growth and development.
In great majority of the cases, this involves leaders who have a very high degree of technical and functional competencies, but they are perceived as being difficult to work with. In other words while they are very good at their work, they are highly productive, and they know their stuff, colleagues don’t like working with them. These leaders, often unknowingly, cause great degree of emotional damage to others for they rub their team members the wrong way. Yet organizations are hesitant to take ’em on fearing what if things get worse. Furthermore, organizations fear losing given their expertise and performance. Left unaddressed however, overtime these leaders cause a decrease in morale, engagement, retention, overall productivity – eventually causing good people to leave – for more often than not, people leave their leaders, not their organization. One day a time finally comes where the situation becomes just too unbearable and it can no longer be ignored. That’s when I get called in.
Most of the time when I deliver the feedback it goes pretty well. While they may have a few surprises, being the high achievers that they are, they are generally committed to getting better. Therefore they welcome the feedback. This is because they believe it’s better to know than not to know, for once they know they can then do something about it, if they so choose. It beats being in the blind all the while wondering why you’re not getting the results you want and wondering why your good people are leaving, worse disengaged on the job.
Sometimes though, I face someone who wants to argue with the feedback. The argument can take many forms from “they don’t understand” to “they are wrong.” After letting them vent, my response is usually something like this – “You may be right and they may be wrong. But you know what, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because people interact with who they think you are, not with who you think you are. And how others perceive you can and does directly impact what opportunities become available to you, and which ones don’t. And that in turn directly impacts the quality of your results and your future.” I’ve yet to have anyone argue with this.
On a related note, a key point to note here is that to a great degree how you are perceived by others is directly connected to the quality of your conversations that you engage in. This is because much of organizational work tends to be conversational in nature. So what you say, how you say it (e.g. tone, facial expressions, gestures, posture), as well as what you don’t say matters and has a direct impact on your public identity, how others perceive you.
Another observation I have is that high achievers when they receive feedback often want to change everything. This is not necessary, nor realistically possible. Instead, whenever you take on the work of becoming a more effective individual, a more effective leader, in regards to changing you usually will want to focus on changing ONLY one behavior, or two at most, that will make the biggest difference. And at the same time, you also need to focus on changing the perceptions that others have of you. This is crucial because you work and lead in a system full of people, your overall effectiveness and success depends as much on changing their perception of you as on changing your actual behavior.
With the above in mind, here are three points to keep in mind as you strive to change
- You have to change some behavior: You can’t change perceptions without changing some behavior. Start with something that’s simple to change and likely to make a significant difference over time. You’ll be amazed at how much leverage you can get from relatively simple and small changes. For example, let’s say you are perceived as not listening and as constantly cutting people off. Then simply keeping your lips shut while others are talking and letting them finish their statements before speaking will make a big difference in how you are perceived.
- You have to help people see the new you: Don’t wait for people to notice the change, at least right away, because they may not. And even if they do, at first they may be skeptical and wonder what you’re up to and how long the new you will last. Plus more often than not they are generally too busy and preoccupied with their own stuff. So you have to “advertise” and let them know that you are trying to change and what you’re working on changing. And from time to time, you also must ask them how you’re doing in making the change. This lets them know you are serious about changing and when you slip back to the old you at times, which I guarantee will happen from time to time, they will forgive you and give you the benefit of doubt. If they give you additional feedback, again as I shared earlier, you simply respond with something like “thank you”, or “tell me more” or “please help me better understand what you just shared”. But whatever you do, please never ever never get defensive or argue with the feedback. Finally, when one day when they tell you to stop asking how you’re doing and that you’re doing just fine, this means you have been successful in changing their perceptions of your behavior.
- You must be patient: Don’t expect people’s perceptions of you to change overnight. Particularly if they have known you for a long time. It takes people awhile to see you in a new light as change in perception almost always lags actual change in behavior. So keep at it and be patient. At minimum give it several months.