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What is the point of feedback?


Mark Loftus dissects our modern leaders, this time focusing on the issue of feedback.

Whoever walks through the door of Number 10 in a few months time, one thing will be certain: that they will have been subject to the most intense feedback possible. Journalists, commentators, the public, all giving feedback - every piece of behaviour dissected, ridiculed or admired. Advisors and consultants constantly on hand.

Yet how much of this feedback has been helpful? The more Gordon Brown has adopted media-friendly behaviours, the more we have stared in disbelief, our futures already haunted by the spectre of his out-of-sync gestures and facial expressions. In contrast, our doubts about David Cameron revolve around his very flexibility in the face of feedback. As Charlie Brooker writes in the Guardian, he is “a bit too telegenic, a bit too slick, a bit too clean-cut”. Nick Clegg similarly so: a management consultant trying to sell us something, but we are left feeling unsure exactly what.

What are they really like?

Underlying all of this we have the question: “But what are they really like?” In my last article, I offered the idea that leadership is an exercise that comes from the core of who we are as people. We want to know who Brown, Cameron and Clegg are so we can decide whether to offer them the ultimate trust of being prepared to follow their lead. By focusing on the ‘universal virtues’ of character we set off on an interesting trail, one that encourages us to think about leaders in terms of courage, energy, compassion, resilience, integrity and humility, to name but a few.

We will forgive our leaders much, but have a deep distrust of people seeking to be who they are not, to be smoothed into a more apparently appealing profile, sweetened to suit one taste one day, spiced for a different taste the next.


Do people change?

All of which restates the question: what is the point of feedback? And stimulates a second question: do people change? (See survey)

Maybe feedback is not about change. Many will have shared the mix of trepidation, curiosity and defensiveness that people have when they are listening to feedback. The flash of recognition, the reluctance to see their flaws, the delight that colleagues see them as having at least some positive qualities. Many will also have shared their subsequent reactions five or 10 years later when they see the same themes emerging, despite having dutifully identified their development targets, compiled development plans, had coaching, attended courses. Perhaps we should not be surprised. After all, by definition, the essence of who someone is does not change much through life. Character is pretty constant, which is why we look for it in leaders – it gives us a means of predicting how someone will behave in the future.

Where feedback certainly is useful is in helping an individual discover the unique shape of their character strengths. Feedback can help earlier glimpses crystallise into firm understanding, providing the foundation on which to build leadership.

Relationships as a source of change

One purpose, then, is to develop self-awareness, but this represents only half of the equation. An essential half, but only half. Self-awareness needs to act as a springboard to ‘other-awareness’. Feedback helps people discover their essential core, and it then helps them understand what impact this core has on those around them. When does it delight, and when does it frustrate?

This shift from ‘self’ to ‘other’ is a key one. Leadership is about relating and it is based in reciprocity. And so we see a key role of feedback: to help create the kinds of relationships within which leadership flourishes.

Practical implications

If you find yourself in a position of leadership, follow Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones and ask yourself the question: why should anyone be led by me? What are the character strengths that others might value in me? How do I fit these strengths to the demands of the situation? Should I step aside and identify someone more suited to these challenges? What are the qualities of my relationships and can I create a stronger bond of trust?

If you find yourself in the privileged position of advising leaders, remember that people value leaders who are themselves, warts and all. We are trying to get them to see who they really are and the impact they have on others. It isn’t about practising someone else’s way of being.

As Goffee and Jones put it, the aim is to create sufficient self-awareness - no more. Then there is some serious leadership work to be done creating shared purpose and adaptive organisations.

More of which next time…

Mark Loftus, is the director of The Thinking Partnership. He has 20 years of experience as an organisational consultant and is a recognised authority on emotional intelligence and the art of assessing senior leaders. He is a chartered clinical psychologist with an MPhil from London's Institute of Psychiatry and a degree in philosophy and psychology from Oxford University.

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