“The candle is not lit
To give light, but to testify to the night.”

–-- Robert Bly

Leadership Feedback, Leadership Wounds

In one way or anoth­er, lead­ers are always receiv­ing feed­back. Some­times it is from the voiced reac­tions of peo­ple at a meet­ing they are guid­ing. Some­times it is more for­mal, for exam­ple from a staff sur­vey or 360 degree appraisal process. As a con­sul­tant and coach, I’ve noticed a fair­ly com­mon pat­tern in the process of tak­ing in, under­stand­ing and using feed­back, par­tic­u­lar­ly when it is uncom­fort­able to hear. 

There are stages to the process of per­son­al learn­ing, ones I’ve worked to clar­i­fy in the graph­ic below — ones I’ve noticed in oth­ers and in myself.


1. Shock and Min­i­miza­tion. At the first stage, the leader knows or sens­es that feed­back is com­ing but has not as yet received it. Employ­ees have filled out their anony­mous sur­vey forms and some con­sult­ing firm promis­es it is com­plet­ing a “com­pre­hen­sive report” that will soon be on the way. Or per­haps the leader has made an impor­tant rec­om­men­da­tion to the Board, and so is acute­ly aware of every ques­tion, chal­lenge, and tone of com­mu­ni­ca­tion from Board mem­bers dur­ing the event, but has not yet heard the actu­al out­come and feed­back from the pre­sen­ta­tion. Whether the forth­com­ing feed­back is for­mal or infor­mal, the leader knows that there will be some type of judg­ment. At this stage, before the infor­ma­tion is received the leader may enter a peri­od of mild shock, uncon­scious­ly min­i­miz­ing or dis­miss­ing the impact feed­back will have. As the shock wears off, the sec­ond stage begins with wor­ry about the poten­tial neg­a­tiv­i­ty of the feedback.

2. Anx­i­ety and False Open­ness. Then it hap­pens — the feed­back comes in con­tain­ing uncom­fort­able truths or per­cep­tions. The com­pre­hen­sive report says the leader needs to enhance per­son­al rela­tion­ship and trust-build­ing skills, rec­om­mend­ing work on emo­tion­al intel­li­gence. Or key stake­hold­ers, such as Board mem­bers share how the lead­er’s pre­sen­ta­tion ram­bled and was unclear. These lead­ers may then acknowl­edge the prob­lem with a kind of false open­ness, claim­ing, per­haps to have nev­er heard such neg­a­tive feed­back before or claim­ing to have heard it but nev­er to have under­stood it, or even claim­ing to “be work­ing on it” and “much bet­ter than I used to be.” The per­son may even more or less cheer­ful­ly agree with the assess­ment and say things like, “Well, that was­n’t so bad after all! Not as bad as I expect­ed!” or some such oth­er coverup. These are defens­es, of course, aim­ing to pro­tect the per­son­’s image and sense of self-iden­ti­ty, although vocal­iz­ing such ratio­nal­iza­tions too long and loud ends up doing just the opposite.

3. Pri­vate Brood­ing and Depres­sion. What may not be so plain in these ratio­nal­iza­tions and defens­es is the pain the per­son is feel­ing and active­ly attempt­ing to process in a pri­vate way. Behind the scenes, the leader may go home to brood and rethink the meet­ing, the sur­vey, the pre­sen­ta­tion, team dynam­ics, any­thing and every­thing relat­ed to the feed­back and per­son­al per­for­mance. This can include won­der­ing if he or she should stay in the job and orga­ni­za­tion and is often accom­pa­nied by a depres­sion that seems more or less uncontrollable. 

4. Hurt, Resent­ment, Anger. Ulti­mate­ly, the impact of the feed­back, and the pain it has caused, moves toward deep­er, more hon­est feel­ings: hurt, resent­ment and anger. If employ­ees were fear­ful of speak­ing up in the first place and wor­ry­ing about retal­i­a­tion, this stage def­i­nite­ly is the zone of risk. Just about the time peo­ple are begin­ning to feel they are safe after giv­ing feed­back, the lead­er’s mood can change. If sev­er­al super­vi­sors in the hier­ar­chy have received neg­a­tive feed­back, this is the point where they may bond togeth­er, start see­ing the whole process as unfair, begin blam­ing those who offered the feed­back and demo­niz­ing them.

And here, after the fourth stage there is a break point, one I believe we must look at close­ly, because it has so much to do with whether a per­son will ulti­mate­ly find some­thing pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive in the expe­ri­ence the feed­back pro­vides. It’s here that the leader will become stuck or achieve a break­through. The direc­tion one goes has a lot to do with pre­vi­ous con­di­tion­ing of the leader, the way the leader feels he or she has been treat­ed over time, the child­hood of the per­son and con­flicts sur­vived, but also lat­er expe­ri­ences in school and work and social rela­tion­ships gen­er­al­ly. None of us is per­fect. The point is all of us have wounds from our pasts, and when the feed­back begins to touch those wounds, the pain may be ampli­fied far beyond the actu­al char­ac­ter or con­tent of the feed­back. If a leader, for instance, because of pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ence ques­tions his or her val­ue as a per­son or whether he or she has a mean­ing­ful role to play, then the pain can go very deep into the heart, touch­ing all the dam­age that is there. 

5. Learn­ing. At the fifth stage the per­son in some way must come back togeth­er. He or she must inte­grate the feed­back expe­ri­ence some­how, even if that means throw­ing out the feed­back entire­ly. If the leader is unaware and wants to hide from per­son­al wounds, he or she can do so by dis­miss­ing the sur­vey or blam­ing the orga­ni­za­tion (or the coach), find­ing flaws in the process, or imag­in­ing ulte­ri­or motives. “Well, the Board is so polit­i­cal. Of course, they could­n’t accept my pro­pos­al. It was too threat­en­ing to them!” This is the lim­it­ed learn­ing then: lim­it­ed to find­ing a rea­son for the blow that has noth­ing to do with the per­son and his or her way of being.

On the oth­er hand, at this crit­i­cal choice point, the leader who real­izes that the pain of the feed­back is is mag­ni­fied because it touch­es old wounds has a chance to learn at a dif­fer­ent lev­el and in an unlim­it­ed way. “Ah, the feed­back reminds me once again of how hurt and scared I was when I was fired two years ago.” Or, “this feed­back is again point­ing to how I’ve failed to trust myself in too many risky sit­u­a­tions.” Or, “the feed­back takes me back to an ear­ly time when I felt so ter­ri­bly iso­lat­ed and alone while oth­ers suc­ceed­ed around me.” It’s when the leader allows, even pos­i­tive­ly invites the feed­back in rela­tion to the wounds of the past that he or she becomes strong again, strong enough to sep­a­rate what’s here and now from those old, unre­solved inner issues which are “speak­ing up” through the feed­back. It is at that moment and in that way that the pos­i­tive learn­ing can occur. 

6. Pos­i­tive or Neg­a­tive Adap­ta­tion. Depend­ing on the kind of learn­ing — learn­ing how to wall out the pain or learn­ing how to put the pain in per­spec­tive — dif­fer­ent adap­tions, neg­a­tive and pos­i­tive arise. And there is a sur­pris­ing sub­tle­ty to the dif­fer­ence. The per­son who walls out the per­son­al wound is the one who ends up con­trolled by it, con­demned to a cycle of re-wound­ing and learned coverups. The per­son who lets the infor­ma­tion in, acknowl­edg­ing and accept­ing how it touch­es a par­tic­u­lar­ly per­son­al and vul­ner­a­ble space in the heart is the one who ulti­mate­ly can be free.

In this sense, our wounds are like­ly nev­er total­ly healed. It would be unwise to hope for that, but much of their ener­gy can be redeemed and even trans­mut­ed. That, I think, is where the real wis­dom lies any­way — and where the action and changes that come out of con­struc­tive feed­back are found, action and changes that are nei­ther too much or too lit­tle, that are gen­tle improve­ments, made one at a time, one suture after another.


Plastic Barrel with Hole Washed Up from the Sea

RSS and email sub­scrip­tion, occa­sion­al Unfold­ing Lead­er­ship newslet­ter, search and oth­er func­tions may be found at the “Fur­ther Infor­ma­tion” tab at the bot­tom of the front page.

Pin­ter­est users, you can pin pic­tures from this weblog via this Board.


Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.