Oftentimes leaders say they are eager for opinions about their performance. In many cases, they honestly do want it. Some say they are open to feedback, but their behavior says otherwise. People in leadership roles can find it challenging to go about getting honest feedback concerning their job performance. Many executives hire coaches and consultants like me to collect feedback anonymously from people who otherwise would be uncomfortable offering opinions. We, as neutral parties, can report what we learn without fear of reprisal.

Jerry, the deputy director of a large non-profit organization, told me that he is confident in his talent as a leader and is committed to improving his skill. During our first session, we decided to do a 360 assessment to step up his growth. We used an on-line survey tool to gather feedback from his boss, his peers, direct reporters, and his customers. Jerry was excited about the process and eager to hear what people had to say.

The feedback turned out not to be what Jerry expected; in fact, he did not like the results. Jerry assessed his leadership skills quite differently than the survey responders did. While he saw himself as open to other people’s ideas, the responders reported him to be autocratic and controlling. What Jerry saw as honesty and commitment to the growth of his staff and the organization came across to the feedback providers as arrogance and a tendency to be overly critical.

This assessment gave Jerry a significant growth opportunity, but, like many people who dislike the responses to their requests for comment, Jerry discounted the survey results. He told himself that the responders misunderstood the instrument, that they saw him inaccurately and that the results did not reflect his true leadership persona. He blocked his opportunity for growth by rationalizing away the unexpectedly negative feedback.

Receiving feedback, especially negative feedback that clashes with our self-perceptions, can be difficult. Frequently I hear leaders say they want honest feedback then see them react badly when they get it. Their negative reactions shut down the communications channels, thereby eliminating opportunities for future input. Some organizational cultures demonstrate such aversion to feedback regarding leaders that employees fear negative repercussions to frank expression of opinion, even when their responses are supposedly confidential. This type of feedback-adverse culture inhibits leaders’ and organizations’ progress and success.

Fortunately, Jerry spent some time thinking objectively about the information our survey produced. He worked through his initial response, moved beyond his bias and carefully evaluated the feedback. He learned to acknowledge it as constructive criticism even though he did not like it, and to recognize the growth opportunity it presented.

As Jerry opened himself up to hearing what others had to say about his job performance, he found ways to behave differently. Most importantly, his newfound understanding of his own reaction to the 360 process showed him how he had reacted similarly when people presented ideas that did not fit his way of doing things. Jerry realized that his behavior had created an environment that not only discouraged the honesty he claimed to want, but that in fact punished people whose methods clashed with his own.

Honest feedback provides leaders with valuable opportunities to grow. The more open we are to frank comment, the more quickly we grow. Remember, though, that not all feedback is necessarily valid. I tell clients it is like cooked spaghetti thrown against a wall: some strands stick and some do not. Take what constructive criticism is valuable for you and leave the rest behind, but be careful not to discard anything before you take time to consider it. If you react strongly against a piece of feedback, think carefully about that piece. It may have touched a nerve.

* Are you eager to hear honest feedback?
* Do you communicate this desire to the people around you?
* Are you open to the constructive feedback you receive?
* Do you become defensive when you hear honest feedback? Be honest with yourself.
* What changes will make it easier for you to hear feedback?
* Does your organizational culture encourage and reward honest feedback?
* Does your organizational culture make honesty difficult?
* What changes will make it easier for the people in your organization provide honest feedback?

Feedback is a gift you receive from the provider. Negative feedback rarely is easy to give, so even if you do not like what you hear, be sure to appreciate the giver’s honesty and to thank the person for being honest with you.