Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Fear of Feedback - The Hidden Obstacle to Executive Success

“You can’t handle the truth” Jack Nicholson screamed in the movie A Few Good Men and when it comes to getting candid feedback about themselves and how others see them, too many executives suffer the same phobia – fearing their coworkers’ honest opinions about their behavior, their style or their actions.

Yet, corporate success is all about perception. Those in the fast lane at companies or sitting at the top of the house know all too well, that how you’re seen is who you are. It’s the ultimate validation of perception equaling reality and denial can lead to downfall

Sure, quality work and measurable results are important - actually they’re imperatives - but lots of people rack up accomplishments. However, as many would-be leaders discover, corporations are not necessarily meritocracies. Just doing good work is not enough to ensure advancement, and by itself is certainly not a formula for making it into the C-suite.

Success is a rich brew of good work, organizational savvy and superior relationships across all constituencies and understanding, knowing and managing the perceptions of others is a key ingredient to achieving it.

Fear is a career killer

But fear of feedback causes some executives to shy away from learning how others truly see them and keeps many otherwise talented execs from maximizing their potential, often resulting in short-circuited careers.

I was reminded of this recently when I was called into a major financial services firm to explore a coaching engagement with one of their senior leaders.

He had a solid record of achievements and numerous prior promotions, but seemed plateaued in his current assignment, appeared to lack the sponsorship to go further and was at a loss to explain why.

He could cite no specific areas he’d been advised to work on or that he thought needed work and seized upon the concept of strengthening his Executive Presence when I raised it in our conversation.

But, when we started to speak about generating feedback from others as a way to identify which behaviors to work on, his anxiety began to surface.

He was very uncomfortable with the idea of letting others know he was receiving coaching and even more concerned about asking for their feedback. As I learned, he had always been hesitant about generating feedback and had gotten as far as he had by virtue of stringing together an impressive list of accomplishments but that was no longer enough to move to the next level.

Whether it was because he was concerned about what he’d hear or feared being seen as weak by asking others for input, or worried that he’d be perceived as focusing on “soft” issues rather than performance, his fears were keeping him from moving ahead and learning what others saw as the critical opportunity areas requiring improvement.

That was an avoidable mistake and as he eventually recognized, feedback is a positive. In fact, it’s a gift and should be treated that way because when it comes to feedback, as President Franklin Roosevelt wisely said “the only thing we need to fear, is fear itself.”

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