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Leadership feedback the breakfast of champions

Dr Richard Bunning, Teacher

Faculty Blog

One of my best bosses, ever, was Judith, a woman who over the years had made her way from departmental secretary to vice president within a major pharmaceutical company.

She had many admirable traits, but one behaviour in particular has remained with me over the years: her request for performance feedback… from her team. In the days before her annual performance review with our company president, she held a meeting with us, her management team. Judith would request that each of us prepare feedback on our experiences of her as our boss during the year. The feedback was not only about her  leadership of us and the department, but also about how we saw her interacting with other departments and senior managers in the company. The process guided her growth and cemented our loyalty to her as our leader. We grew to trust Judith implicitly.

That type of feedback is informal and any leader can do it. But companies have, over the years, developed more formal systems which supplement or even replace the annual performance review. One manager told me that her firm used upward appraisal, a formalised rating scale completed by subordinates. It was the basis of the annual salary improvement programme.

“I feel I’m a pretty good leader,” she told me, “but in my first year my team gave me a low rating in terms of keeping them informed. That cost me money. Now I never go out onto the shop floor without thinking about how much I communicate with my team.” Clearly the system encouraged growth and elicited an improvement in her behaviour as a leader.

Of course 360-degree feedback systems have been available for some decades. And such feedback is invaluable for those who have experienced it. But your boss will tend to rate you higher than either your subordinates or your peers (the latter will likely rate you the lowest). So only receiving an appraisal from your boss may give you a blinkered view of your overall performance. Interestingly, at least in Western organisations, when compared to the mean of 360-degree rating instruments, white males tend to overrate themselves. Females and people of ethnicity tend to underrate themselves. And, on average, women receive higher ratings than men.

Regardless of the system, formal or informal, there is little doubt that receiving and accepting periodic feedback is an invaluable method of leadership development, the breakfast of champions.