I work with leaders all the time on how to give more effective and constructive feedback to their associates.  This is an essential competency for strong leaders.  However, I have also realized that what can set great leaders apart from the average ones is the ability to receive meaningful feedback themselves.  It can be harder than it sounds.

Many leaders are programmed to be the best, to know the answers and to be good at problem solving.  Even when an individual leader professes to be open to input from others, a natural tendency is to jump in with the answers before we even know what the real issue is.  It is a truism that ‘more heads are better than one’ when it comes to creative problem solving or brainstorming.  However, deliberate focused listening – with the intent to understand rather than to respond – is harder than it sounds.

It is my experience that the best leaders utilize what I call the 4 A’s of receiving feedback:

  1. Accept the input
  2. Acknowledge the thought
  3. Absorb the feedback
  4. Act upon it

When someone is promoted up to a more senior title, there is often an implicit assumption that this person is a good leader.  In the leader’s mind, she becomes ‘the boss’ and she can lose the ability to see herself clearly and as others do.  Or, in some cases, the world around the leader has changed and circumstances now call for a somewhat different style of leadership.  It can be challenging for this same leader to acknowledge that he still has more to learn and to accept input from others.  At times, the feedback is not delivered in the most constructive manner which can make it even harder to accept.  Be sure to listen to both the words and the feelings of the speaker.  In order to become truly self-aware and open to change, a leader must learn to actively listen and to accept feedback from others.

Have you ever been involved in a meeting where the leader does most of the talking?  Others seem to agree more than challenging the basic premise or doing creative thinking.  This can be a dangerous paradigm for the business.  Leaders should consider the amount of time spent talking versus listening during a typical conversation.  In most cases, it should be less than 50% talking with more time listening.   The goal should be to ask more questions and to supply fewer answers.

I would encourage leaders to acknowledge feedback and the thought behind it.  We want to encourage colleagues, peers and direct reports to be open and provide different and often important perspectives to leaders.  It can be as simple as a statement like “I hadn’t thought about it that way”.  Even if the feedback is ultimately rejected, it is critical to acknowledge it and encourage the speaker to continue to bring new thoughts and ideas.

Once the leader has accepted and acknowledged the feedback, he/she must internalize and absorb it.  Ask clarifying questions to confirm the main thoughts or ideas.  Don’t judge.  Consider the following.  Is there an element of truth in this feedback?  Why would this person think that?  What does this mean to me?  How does this impact other people around me?  Is this something that I can change?  Is this something that I want to change?

Finally, the best leaders act upon the constructive feedback they have been given.  This may mean changing a behavior.  This may involve developing a new habit.  This may require more detailed input from others.  It may even mean explaining why he or she is not going to act on the input.  However, it is important to ‘do something’ with this feedback.  It is truly a gift to have people hold a mirror up for us to see ourselves more clearly.

I have yet to meet a great leader who felt that she/he had nothing more to learn.  Life long learning and continuous self-improvement are critical attributes of the best leaders.  Those who can readily accept, acknowledge, absorb and act on feedback are the ones who continue to evolve as leaders to meet the needs of a constantly changing business environment.  It is one way that good leaders evolve into great leaders.

Good feedback may be one instance where it may be better to receive than to give.