LISTENING TO FEEDBACK IS KEY TO GOOD LEADERSHIP

Business Report  24 April, 2012

Business Report

24 April, 2012

By Jonathan Yudelowitz

The flow of information between operations and strategy is the lifeblood of a business and requires continuous conversations and feedback. Strong leadership gives clear, appropriate and bold direction via strategies and plans that inform employees of their duties and are essential to co-ordinate action.

 Plans are limited by past experience and assumptions, so they cannot predict how things will turn out. Therefore, in an effective organisation, all staff apply their insight, intuition and imagination to the unforeseen and feed accurate information to planners, so that they can adjust plans according to lessons and insights learnt from implementation. This process is hampered by the fact that people, especially those in charge, need feedback, but will try and avoid the embarrassment of being shown up.

Human resources management systems are supposed to mitigate this problem but their products reduce complexities to statistically correct aggregations – causing feedback recipients to spend more energy trying to decipher what informed these statistical representations and being defensive, than appreciating what they should learn from the feedback.

These professions have struck a Faustian bargain. In exchange for the power associated with being accepted as real and useful business players, they refrain from providing powerful insights into how people relate to each other and their work. Instead, they sell their systems and theories on the supposition they can sanitise and simplify the complex human condition – creating a ruse to help businesses believe they understand people just enough to manage them, while being spared the need to invest in risk, respect and curiosity to build real relationships.

Human resources has led the management fad of assigning value-laden labels to the unique insights of individuals to discount views and opinions organisations may find inconvenient. The term "resistor" is typical of this self-serving propaganda. It’s a glib hold-all term that lumps together anyone that disagrees with a plan or approach, devaluing any constructive insights the "resistors" may have. Cynics, on the other hand, will exploit uncertainty for their own ends and hold the organisation to ransom. Yet, if a shallow approach is taken they are all likely to be treated the same; hence the failure of so much strategy implementation.

Leaders must set direction and keep boundaries and discipline, while listening and learning from employees. This competence, which includes articulating opinions clearly and giving inoffensive feedback, is undervalued and neglected in executive development, yet it is essential to monitoring the gaps between plan and reality.

To ensure feedback is accurate and true, do not use generalisations and value judgments. Say what you mean by describing specific observations and experience. To be descriptive use your own feelings, such as saying "I was angry" or "I was hurt"; or use a metaphor: "I felt like a school child being yelled at by a hall monitor."

Saying someone is arrogant is judgmental and will inevitably evoke defence. Rather use a fuller response such as: "I was with a client and we were working together when you intruded telling everybody what to do." To make this authentic you needs to reveal your motives and subjective experience and say, for instance: "And I wanted to shake you", which is authentic and its full meaning cannot be argued with. It is likely to be heard and understood in the way the speaker intended.