Start giving and receiving feedback that will make you a better leader

Author - Stephanie Semay Bäckström & Lærke Gelineck Berg

Many leaders are not good with feedback, and this inhibits learning and development in the organization. The good news is that feedback is something that can be trained to expert level.

We know both intuitively and from research that feedback is the way to a stronger bottom line, improved engagement and a better ability to prepare the organization to meet future requirements.

We also know that we provide too little feedback. The managers know this. HR knows this. The employees know this.

Nonetheless, we see that many managers receive their most important feedback from employees, manager colleagues and their superior once a year. And this is only via a questionnaire, which does not always lead to enlightening dialogs that can elaborate on the nuances and lead to real development.

In other words: We are not impressed.

What is it that we are actually so scared of? There are a number of concerns about feedback which we often hear from leaders:

  • “It is unpleasant – I don’t like it.” As people, we have defensive mechanisms designed to look out for us, even when we face unpleasant feedback. Therefore, our natural response is often to avoid it. However, studies show that most people prefer to have correct feedback than positive feedback. Ergo: We need to learn to control our defensive mechanisms – so that we dare listen and learn from the feedback we receive.
  • “I don’t have time to succeed in my primary areas of responsibility and to get/receive proper feedback.” You might have heard managers say: “What others think of my conduct – and what others do with their areas of responsibility – that is their own business.” Implied: “Feedback is not part of my job description nor something I should prioritize as part of the operation.” This requires an alignment of expectations in the organization concerning what the manager’s task actually involves. Is a good manager in your organization someone who gives and asks for feedback?
  • “I am afraid that it will impact our relationship.” In Scandinavia, conflict-adverse managers are commonplace. We would much rather be seen as proper and nice. You may even recognize some of these traits in yourself. However, conflicts and disagreements are part of what strengthen the cooperation, relationship and development, if you can manage to talk about them. And practice makes perfect. As a manager, you should not avoid giving or requesting feedback – or talking about the feedback that you just received in a questionnaire with those who provided it. It strengthens the relationship, and you will be taken more seriously as a manager. That said, we also know that it can be difficult to initiate the dialog once you have seen the feedback in a report – particularly if there is a lot to work on.
  • “I won’t get an honest answer anyway.” Whether you want it to exist or not, your relationships involve power, hierarchy and competition. This is all true. However, if you previously received dishonest answers – or perhaps even silence – then you have a bigger problem. Your colleagues cannot help you with everything you need to know in order to be a complete manager. Make it natural for employees and managers to receive and work with informative feedback.
  • “I cannot figure out how to give or receive feedback.” You may have tried several times – but it resulted in a Gordian knot, which is impossible to undo. Very often, you might not even want to try because of this fear. Our experience is that managers do want to – but they do not know how to do it in a constructive way – or poor experiences inhibit them from trying again. They need to try new ways – and they need to experience success when they do so. It is possible!
Luckily, there is a solution to most concerns. Some of it requires training, structure and culture.

Personal and social understanding can be trained

Unfortunately, we know that many leaders are poorly trained in giving and receiving feedback.
Some managers require more training than others, since we have different competences within the intra-personal (self-insight and self-control) and inter-personal (social abilities and the ability to cooperate with many different types of people).

Both parts are key to the leader’s development, which in the end is a prerequisite for a stronger feedback culture in the organization.

More specifically, there are a number of things that most managers need to practice.

  • Creating this space. Time, place, occasion and other frameworks must be selected carefully to ensure successful feedback.
  • Understanding conflicts. It is important to have a feel for the sort of language that escalates and de-escalates conflicts.
  • Communication. Train to communicate observations, interpretations and proposals in a way that supports learning.
  • Keep your cool. The most important thing to train as a manger is your ability to take critical feedback without becoming defensive.

Training covers learning new techniques as well as testing them to see the reactions you get. The most important thing is that it is not something to be saved for special occasions; it should be tested daily so that it becomes a natural part of the set interaction with managers, manager colleagues and employees.

For instance, this could be trained before and after the results of the questionnaire are in. After a big presentation at the team meeting or by following up on a reaction you did not understand.
Training means that you, as a manager, can control your defensive mechanisms and regularly dare reach out and ask for feedback. And this way, you lead by example.

When you establish a structure around your own feedback, you promote the creation of a feedback culture, where we continuously and mutually align our expectations – even as managers – making the organization more learning-agile.

Face to face management feedback is not dangerous. It may be perceived as dangerous, and we might even have made some failed attempts, which give us the impression that it cannot be done. But it certainly can – if we dare.

First published in the media Monday Morning on 24 March 2021. 


Stephanie Semay Bäckström laerke_gelineck_berg

Stephanie Semay bäckström

Leadership & Team Development

Lærke Gelineck Berg

Senior Leadership Consultant,
Leadership & Team Development


Stephanie Semay Bäckström & Lærke Gelineck Berg

Stephanie Semay Bäckström & Lærke Gelineck Berg

Stephanie Bäckström is Director, Leadership & Team Development. She works with organizational development, evaluation, process consulting, coaching and creativity management. Lærke Gelineck Berg is a Senior Leadership Consultant in Leadership & Team Development. She helps organizations translate insights from employee surveys and customer surveys into lasting change.