As a Leader You Need Honest, Direct Feedback – Here’s How to Get It

360° Feedback - Image of sitting down to listen with a cup of coffee

“If you’re not getting information or feedback on a regular basis that is uncomfortable for you, go seek it out.” One of the traps a higher-ed leader can fall into is in believing that they are receiving accurate feedback when in fact their colleagues and team members are holding back. Here's a way to break through that trap: an anonymous 360° feedback process.

by Patrick Sanaghan (President, The Sanaghan Group)

This article is adapted from an excerpt of Pat Sanaghan's book How Higher-Ed Leaders Derail: A Survival Guide for Leaders.

For leaders in higher ed, I cannot stress enough that you have to be proactive in encouraging (and rewarding behavior that fosters) a climate of candor and transparency. If others around you are not pushing back on your ideas, sharing different perspectives, and asking the tough questions, you may not realize how your leadership is actually being received. It’s very likely that you have an inaccurate and incomplete picture. In How Higher-Ed Leaders Derail: A Survival Guide for Leaders, I refer to this situation as "the seduction of the leader," a common dynamic in which leaders are "seduced" into believing they have all the facts when in fact, they don't. It is a dynamic that, if allowed to persist and flourish, can shipwreck your efforts as a leader in your organization.

It is critical that leaders regularly seek honest feedback. The best leaders actively seek anonymous feedback from others. They understand that even though most people are open and honest individuals, they will rarely “tell it like it is” to their leaders, even if they are asked, for a host of reasons: people have a hard time delivering difficult news; the “collegial” nature of higher education tends to be conflict averse; avoidance of hurt feelings; etc. There are structural barriers that are sometimes in place, as well; for example, you may have a well-meaning gatekeeper who believes it is their responsibility to shield you from "bad news" or criticism. There can be other contributing factors, as well - including how feedback has been received in the past, either by yourself or by your predecessor in the position.

This is a given: if you have power and influence, you will be working against a tide of reticence when it comes to gaining access to information that sheds a negative light on you, those around you, or your institution. I often tell leaders, “If you’re not getting information or feedback on a regular basis that is uncomfortable for you, go seek it out.” This requires going beyond the collegial, “How are things going?” or “Let me know if there’s anything I need to do.”

To counter this tide of reticence, I advise you to enact strategies that create permeable boundaries—permeable enough to allow information and feedback to readily get through. In the second chapter of the book, I offer nine strategies for achieving this. Here is one of the most game-changing:

Use a 360° Feedback Process

The 360° process is a performance-feedback approach that has been around for decades. When conducted well, it is one of the most powerful and insightful learning experiences a leader can undertake. In this well-organized process, you’ll solicit anonymous feedback about your strengths and the areas in which you need development from multiple stakeholders (such as peers, direct reports, and others you work with). The process takes real courage, but I have found it well worth the risk. In addition to generating information about how others see you as a leader and helping to guide your leadership development, feedback processes also communicate to others that you value others’ opinions, are open to learning, and are committed to increasing your self-awareness. These are all powerful messages to convey.

That said, the process is somewhat complicated, so it’s important to do your homework before you undertake this learning process. I suggest the following two resources, which offer helpful guidance: What Is 360 Degree Feedback? by Mark Miller, and The Art and Science of 360 Degree Feedback by Richard Lepsinger and Anntoinette D. Lucia.

In brief, the 360° process involves soliciting (anonymous) feedback from a diverse set of stakeholders who interact with a particular leader. The primary purpose is to create an honest and holistic picture about how a particular individual is seen and experienced by people they work with.

A confidential report is created after participants provide the necessary information, detailing your strengths and weaknesses as a leader. It is ideal to have an experienced mentor or coach who can help you parse the feedback you receive, prevent you from falling down any "rabbit holes" as you plan improvement, and help you identify where you have opportunities to build on your strengths and improve the areas of needed development. This coach can help you create an action plan. This is essential. A 360° feedback process is not an intellectual exercise. It is meant to create a rich database that moves an individual toward change and enhancement.

If you lack this kind of support for your leadership development within your own unit, then look for a credible and trusted external partner. Most human resources (HR) departments can support and coordinate a 360° feedback process to ensure quality and anonymity. It is essential that the people providing feedback do so anonymously. This ensures honesty. And as a leader in higher ed, receiving honest feedback is worth more than gold.

You can read about the other eight recommended strategies for getting the feedback you need in the book How Higher-Ed Leaders Derail. These include conducting a leadership audit, creating forums for dialogue and evaluating those forums, establishing skip-level meetings, inviting others into your "sense-making" and decision-making process, and other techniques.

Come to Advanced Leadership Development: Get a 360° and Personal Coaching

As part of this three-day, intensive leadership development program designed specifically for higher education, you will complete a 360° assessment. Once you register, Academic Impressions will email you with detailed instructions on how to complete the assessment. Your results will be delivered to you at the workshop, and you’ll have an opportunity during the event for a personalized coaching session with one of the program facilitators.

These facilitators, who are experienced executive coaches, will help you debrief your 360° feedback and arrive at a personal leadership development plan, building on your strengths and addressing a specific area for improvement. It is a unique opportunity to get in-depth intel on your leadership and debrief that intel with foremost experts in leadership development.

Here, you can read testimonials from higher-ed leaders who have completed this conference.