Ask an expert January 2014 Jim Kouzes

Ask an Expert

Q:  To help people clarify their strengths and identify opportunities for improvement, we use 360-degree feedback in our leadership training and coaching. What advice do you have for people who resist participating in such a feedback process?

A:  We are not surprised when we hear that people resist participating in a feedback process. Our studies on exemplary leadership consistently show that the statement receiving the lowest rating on our Leadership Practices Inventory®, both from leaders as well as their constituents, is “Asks for feedback on how his/her actions affect other people’s performance.” In other words, the behavior that leaders and their constituents consider to be the weakest is the behavior that most enables leaders to know how they’re doing!

We know it’s difficult for a lot of people to be open to receiving feedback. But, you must persist because the truth is that the best leaders are the best learners.  The evidence from our research is crystal clear: higher performing leaders more frequently engage in learning activities than do lower performing leaders. Feedback is central to every learning process. Without feedback there can be no learning.

Researchers routinely point out that developing expertise and mastery requires one to receive constructive, even critical, feedback. People’s motivation to perform a task increases only when they have a challenging goal and receive feedback on their progress. Goals without feedback, or feedback without goals, have little effect on people’s willingness to put extra effort (or motivation) into the task.

Just announcing the idea to reach the summit is not enough to get people to put forth more effort. They need information on whether they’re still climbing in the right direction, making progress toward the top, or sliding downhill. The most helpful and supportive thing a coach can do is advise his or her clients that they need clear goals and detailed feedback in order to take charge of their learning.


Q: So feedback directly influences the amount of effort a person invests in self-improvement?

Absolutely. For example, consider what happens to your self-confidence without feedback. In a study, people were told that their efforts would be compared with how well hundreds of others had done on the same task. They received praise, criticism, or no feedback on their performance. Those who heard nothing about how well they did suffered as great a blow to their self-confidence as those who were criticized. Only those who received positive feedback improved.

Coaches need to be tough but caring, telling clients directly: “You can’t learn much if you’re unwilling to find out more about the impact of your behavior on the performance of those around you. It’s your responsibility as a leader to keep asking others, “How am I doing?” If you don’t ask, they’re not likely to tell you. But, if you do ask, you’ve taken one of the two most important steps in becoming a better leader.”


Adapted from a podcast interview with author Jim Kouzes, Feedback, Learning, Performance, Improvement, at Duncan Worldwide.  


Jim Kouzes, cited by The Wall Street Journal as one of the twelve best executive educators in the U.S., is the Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University. Together with Barry Posner, he is author of The Leadership Challenge—now in its fifth edition—and over a thirty other books and workbooks on leadership and leadership development.

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