Before we change lanes while driving – we check the rear vision mirrors and do a head check.
Because there is a spot between the edge of the reflected image and our peripheral vision that is just not covered – a spot where an overtaking vehicle could be lurking and a lane change would be dangerous or even catastrophic.
This is our blindspot. And we don’t just have blindspots while driving. We also have behavioural blindspots – aspects of our personality and behaviour others see and feel, of which we are totally unaware. The only way to cover behavioural blind spots is to ask for feedback.
Feedback is essential to performance. Without it, we are flying blind.
Yet this is not as easy as it sounds. It’s one thing to ask for feedback. It’s another thing entirely to receive it well.
In their recent HBR article, Professor Amy Edmonson (known for her research on psychological safety) and Aaron Dimmock help us understand that blind spots are the result of a natural human tendency to “judge ourselves by our intent – not by our impact”. They also go on to say that humans have an ego defence mechanism known as “self-serving bias” – a tendency to attribute our successes to our abilities, and our failures to external factors.
Put these two things together, and we have a natural aversion to feedback.
We’ve all been there. Someone gives you ruthlessly honest feedback, and your first response is “yes….BUT…. (insert external variable that was out of your control here)”.
I once worked with an organisation who had a CEO with a blindspot about his ability to receive feedback. This former client, exceptional in many ways, firmly believed he was a Leader open to feedback and regularly asked for it. Yet his team did not feel it was safe to give him feedback, because his reaction was perceived as defensive and aggressive. They were either scared of how he’d react or concerned they would hurt his feelings. Either way, giving feedback to their boss was perceived as a real interpersonal risk and potentially damaging to their long-term opportunities in the business. It was clear that this CEO needed feedback on his ability to receive feedback.
When leaders in organisations are more than willing to dish out feedback on performance; yet unwilling to take constructive feedback on board themselves; they actively and unwittingly reinforce the very culture they are working so hard to change.
So how do we overcome this doom loop? How do we address our blind spots and change the way we respond to feedback?
Here are my tips to asking for and receiving feedback:
Business owners, founders, CEOs and executive leaders are role models. For them, it’s even more important to discover blind spots and project humility, acceptance and gratitude in the face of feedback. Leaders who master this build cultures where safety, trust and respect are a key feature.