Should you be forthcoming about your shortcomings?

By Brett Beasley

A new study points to the power of speaking openly about the criticism you have received.

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Some organizations treat the process of giving feedback like an occult ritual, especially when the feedback is for senior leaders. Feedback sessions tend to take place rarely and at carefully chosen times. They tend to be private—most often inside the closed doors of a boardroom or office or behind the digital walls of a performance management system. These processes seem to imply that leaders should be ashamed of the feedback they receive. They suggest that leaders should hide their shortcomings and the ways they are striving to improve their performance.

But a new study entitled "Taking Your Team Behind the Curtain" challenges this view. It shows that leaders miss a golden opportunity when they keep secret the criticisms and suggestions they receive.

Investigating Vulnerability

Constantinos Coutifaris and Adam Grant, the two researchers behind the study, wanted to investigate a discrepancy between the study of leadership and practice of leadership.

Many who study leadership claim that a leader needs to be open and honest about his or her struggles, because this act of vulnerability creates an environment of "psychological safety"—one where team members feel safe to share their concerns and suggestions without fear of ostracism or retaliation. These researchers highlight that psychological safety is crucial for helping employees speak up not just about new innovative ideas but also about ethical issues within the organization. But many executives balk at this idea. They fear that vulnerability will make them appear weak and ineffective. So instead they focus on showing strength and confidence.

Coutifaris and Grant needed to find out what happens when leaders are vulnerable. And more importantly, they needed to discover whether leaders' vulnerability undermines their leadership the way many fear it will.

So they began to examine one key way leaders can show vulnerability: by speaking openly about the feedback they have received on their performance. The researchers considered this topic from several different angles.

First, they looked at the relationship between CEOs and their corporate boards. They found that CEOs who share the feedback they have received from their boards create greater psychological safety within the company's top management team.

Next Coutifaris and Grant randomly selected leaders and asked them to either seek feedback about their performance or share feedback they had already received. One year later, teams whose leaders had spoken about the feedback they had received still showed signs of greater psychological safety.

To see what made the difference between seeking feedback and sharing feedback, Coutifaris and Grant waited two years and then conducted followup interviews with the leaders and employees who had participated in their studies. They found that seeking feedback worked initially. The leaders who asked for feedback initiated vulnerability on their teams, but only in the short run. That vulnerability soon disappeared, though, because most leaders responded to feedback either by becoming defensive or by ignoring it altogether.

This was why speaking openly about their shortcomings and the criticism and suggestions they had received made such a difference. The leader's vulnerability sent an unmistakable signal that it was safe to speak up. It also tended to trigger an ongoing process. Leaders' vulnerability invited their employees to share and be more vulnerable themselves. Overall, this process resulted in better, more useful feedback for everyone and a greater sense of accountability to one another. Best of all, leaders were able to gain these benefits without harming their followers' perceptions of their performance or their competence.

In sum, Coutifaris and Grant say, "to achieve enduring improvements in psychological safety, it may be particularly effective for leaders to share criticism they have received."

Put it in Practice

Don't just ask for feedback; share the feedback you've already received.

"If you see something, say something," organizations sometimes say. But research on psychological safety suggests that employees often need more than the simple encouragement to speak up. They need first to know that it's really safe and worthwhile. So talking about feedback sends a powerful signal that you will listen, care, and respond in meaningful ways. Coutifaris and Grant write, "Rather than encouraging leaders and managers to seek feedback, it may be more effective to build enduring levels of psychological safety by inviting them to share the criticism they have previously received."

Create a regular routine.

As Coutifaris and Grant show, vulnerability creates the most benefits when it becomes a regular, normal part of our team or organization's way of working. So they suggest creating team practices and routines that reinforce the importance of vulnerability. "For example," they write, "leaders may institute regular vulnerability meetings in which they share their own performance reviews and development goals, and help one another prioritize which are most important for team performance."

Show how you plan to grow.

At its core, feedback is not about sorting the high performers from the low performers. It is about growth. This is good news for leaders: Your employees don't need or even want to work for perfect leaders. Instead, they want to work for humble leaders who create environments where everyone—leaders included—grow and contribute. So don't just show your strength, and don't just show your confidence. To lead more effectively, take your team "behind the curtain" and show the criticism you've received.

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