Great Leaders Need Feedback (Pro Tip: It Can Be FUN)

Feedback is incredibly important in leadership, but too often the process ends up being awkward or intense.

There are simple, practical things we can do to make feedback more helpful and enjoyable for us, and for other people.

OK, let’s face it. Although giving and receiving feedback are incredibly important in leadership, too often the process ends up being awkward or intense. We sometimes walk away feeling defensive, demotivated or confused. And we’re not exactly sure what went wrong. This can make us want to just avoid it in the future. However, I’m trying to create a different “feedback culture” in my relationships and life!

I just ordered a book called Thanks for the Feedback that I’m intrigued by, and I’ll try to do a review of it on this site in the future. But I think maybe feedback doesn’t have to be that complicated, or that we necessarily have to spend hours researching the topic. I want to walk through a number of real-life examples I’ve encountered where feedback hasn’t been done that well, and where it has been done well. Having worked in leadership development and human resources for about a decade, I’ve seen a lot. Sometimes I’ve been on the receiving end on feedback, and other times I’ve been on the giving end and have had to learn from my mistakes. I know you have thoughts and experiences in this area too, so join me as we figure this out together!

So to start with, I’m going to cover a few core principles (over the next few posts) that I’ve come to believe about feedback. The first is this, Feedback Principle #1:

We need to ask for feedback more regularly.  

Feedback can mean a lot of things to different people, but at its heart I try to see feedback as an opportunity to grow—whether we’re growing ourselves, or helping others to grow. In my experience, the best leaders relentlessly pursue feedback and growth.

And so behind it all, I’m learning to operate under the mindset that feedback is a good thing, even when it’s not delivered in the best way. No matter what motivates a person to give me feedback, there’s usually a kernel of truth behind what they’re expressing that I can take to learn and grow as a leader. So I try to take the attitude of: “With every piece of feedback I get, I have the opportunity and privilege to grow. I get to become a healthier person, and a more effective leader!” This helps make me grateful for feedback.

Of course, it can be deflating and discouraging when feedback is delivered poorly, and we’ll discuss this more in future posts. But here’s one way to think about that: When feedback is done poorly, that’s an opportunity for me to give feedback in a healthy way to the person who delivered it. In other words, give feedback about the feedback, to the givers of the feedback. Try saying that five times quickly. What I mean is that we have an opportunity to model good feedback, even when it’s done poorly to us.

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In light of the importance of feedback, we need to ask for feedback much more regularly and consistently in our lives and leadership. I’ve found feedback turns out way worse when it’s only rarely given, and that’s when it becomes awkward and intense. People tend to overthink it, get much more amped up or defensive, and so on. It just feels like so much is on the line.

So this is how I’m trying to work it out in my life and household. I’m trying to ask for feedback for small things throughout the week that aren’t always super intense. Like, “How did I do arranging the pillows on the couch?” : ) But seriously, things like:

“Did you think I was a little too strict with the kids tonight, or a little too lenient?”

“Would it have helped if I had given you a few more minutes of help today with cooking, or did I do enough?”

I’m trying to get into a regular rhythm of doing this, so I get more used to it, and my family gets more used to it as well!

Or at work, you could ask your boss or colleague:

“Do you think my presentation was a little too long or a little too short? Any simple ideas to tweak it to be better?”

“Are there any small things I could do to communicate better or more efficiently with you?”

I did this recently as I was working on a project. I asked my collaborator a few days into the project, “Is the amount I’m communicating with you too much, or not enough? Or do you prefer for us to just figure it out as we go along?” Sometimes I also ask, “Is email working out, or is it easier for you to interact by phone?” If we ask these questions early in the process, it can really help set some clarity. But the point is that if we establish a culture of asking for feedback regularly, it actually gives permission to both sides to speak up and make helpful adjustments along the way. It communicates, “I’m OK if you tell me something I could do differently, or if there are changes that would be helpful.” And usually when the other person feels they can do that, they tend to follow suit and give you permission to do the same for them. Win-win situation!

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Here are a few things I’ve learned about these kinds of statements listed above:

  1. When we take the initiative to ask for feedback ourselves, it reduces defensiveness.

    If we ask for feedback rather than wait for someone to give it to us, we’re much more likely to take it better.

  2. It helps to give options when we ask for feedback. 

    When we’re too generic about our request (“What did you think of the chicken I cooked?”) it can be harder for people to know what to say and how. Instead, it helps to be specific and give options  (“Was the chicken a little too salty, or not quite salted enough?”). In my experience, this is more likely to get us helpful feedback that’s not too overwhelming, intense or confusing.

  3. Again, ask for feedback often. 

    We can start by trying for once or twice a week, and then slowly increase until we get to once a day.

  4. Make it casual sometimes.

    Let’s mix up our requests for feedback. Ask for both small and big things, both casual and more serious.

Try it tonight, and let me know how it goes. Seriously! I want to hear how it works for you, as I continue to try it myself. Remember, the best leaders relentlessly pursue feedback and growth.

Adrian Pei
Adrian Pei works as Director of Creative Arts and Resources at Epic Movement, the Asian American ministry of Cru. He earned degrees from Stanford University and Fuller Seminary, and is passionate about writing and developing culturally-aware leadership. You can find him on his blog at www.adrianpei.com, or on Twitter at @adrianpei.