We need to give leaders feedback with the same care we prepare them for it. Poorly given feedback can be received as an attack rather than a caring act. The leader may strike back defensively, dissuading the follower from giving future feedback.
Negative feedback must be clearly directed at the specific behavior or policy, not at the leader himself. It is better for a follower to say, “When you never smile at people it makes them anxious” than to say, “You intimidate people.” The leader can’t change who he is, but he can change his behavior, smile occasionally, and help the people around him relax.
When giving feedback about behavior, we must clearly state:
what the specific behavior is;
what adverse effects it is causing;
how serious the potential consequences are should the behavior continue.
To reduce defensiveness, it is more effective to make statements relating how the person giving the feedback feels (“I” statements) than statements about what the person receiving the feedback is doing (“You” statements):
“My research shows that this policy will have several adverse consequences” rather than “Your policy will have adverse consequences.”
“I feel strongly about honesty and think we should reveal the information we have immediately” rather than “You’re being dishonest by withholding the information.”
The “I” statements are truer and more effective. They don’t sound accusatory so are less likely to trigger defensiveness.
Of course, it’s preferable to raise sensitive issues privately with leaders just as we prefer them to do with us. This is difficult if a prominent leader is always surrounded with aides. We may need to request a private audience or make a judgment call about giving feedback with others present.
It is important not to overdo feedback as we risk making the leader too introspective. Leadership requires looking outward and forward. Some people counsel making five positive statements for every criticism if we want healthy relationships. Whether this exact number is necessary, the principle seems sound. If someone gives us constant negative feedback, the practice wears thin and we close ourselves off.
It is not appropriate or realistic to expect leaders to accept every piece of feedback and immediately make changes. Feedback is not always on target. Sometimes the feedback is on target, but the timing is wrong. Sometimes leaders need to stick to their positions. Leaders who change their position every time they talk to someone else aren’t leading.
Feedback is a critical and fragile element in the leader-follower system. Leaders are fortunate to have followers who develop this skill and understand its appropriate use.