Last week we noticed that it is essential to know yourself in order to be authentic. It is a genuine reality. However, it is equally important to know how others see you, so that you have that information to create the option of correcting the things that you may be unknowingly doing to undermine your good intentions and efforts.
Although self-knowledge is a great asset in knowing how you will interpret a situation or why you will react in a certain way to an event, the feedback you can get from a diverse group of your stakeholders will help you connect to your team on their terms, which are the only terms that matter to them.
To be authentic is to face the truth about yourself as seen by others and that can be a soul-shattering experience in a job where you want to be admired and revered. The gap between their reality and your self-image can be the cause of great frustration and even failure in key relationships across the organisation.
“The only way to discover your strengths,” wrote Peter Drucker “is through feedback analysis”. No senior leader would dispute this as a logical matter. But nor do they act on it.
Most leaders don’t really want honest feedback, don’t ask for it and don’t get much of it unless it’s forced on them. It is because they really cannot handle the truth. And, knowing how unpleasant it might be, most leaders in positions of substantial authority and power opt out of this exercise.
Most leaders aren’t eager to feel exposed as not being perfect, as not knowing everything, as not being as good at leadership as they should be, as not being up to the task. And subordinates are even more reluctant to suggest that the emperor is wearing no clothes.
So, if you are a leader, what would to do? It’s highly unlikely that your direct reports, or peers, are going to knock on your door and say, “I’d like to give you some feedback”. If you want a genuine assessment of how you’re doing, you’re going to have to make the first move and ask for it.
That’s what great leaders do, by the way: Go first.
That’s exactly the approach taken by a CEO at a leading financial services company. He knew the value of direct personal feedback. Yet, for his team members, the whole topic of feedback “had a big negative tone to it”.
He decided it would help if he reversed the traditional process. “We’re going to do things a little bit different,” he told the group. “Instead of me giving the evaluations, you’re going to start by doing one on me.”
After a brief orientation, he left his team to evaluate his performance in private. They were reluctant at first and the process was initially very challenging. But, “The feedback that I received was kind of hard to hear,” he said later. But then he added: “I managed to introduce a model for the group that it’s in order to place yourself at personal risk and take that honest feedback. What I hope was that the team members would understand that feedback is necessary for growth and then to see how you accept that feedback and then what you do with it.”
This executive provided the proof of how vulnerability can build trust. Because of his ability to ask others for help, his team gained a newfound respect for the feedback process — and so did he.
To stay authentic, you need “loving critics”. These are people who care about you and want you to do well — and therefore, they are willing to give you the honest feedback. Turn to them regularly for an honest and caring assessment of your strengths and what you need to do to get even better. Listen to them with the same care they have for you. And when they give you their feedback, your only job at that moment is to say “Thank you”.
Asking for feedback can give leaders insight into their blind spots, ensuring greater self-awareness and a deeper understanding of how they need to improve their performance. When leaders find out where they went wrong, it stands to reason that they can use the information to could do better next time.
The more senior a person is, the more important it is for them to ask for feedback, because people don’t tend to offer it to them freely. Senior executives need to ask the person providing the feedback what they could have done differently, demonstrating they are not only confident and open but most importantly, willing to learn from their experiences.
It is important for business leaders to be ‘curious’ about the feedback and not take it too personally or be defensive about it. By being curious and wondering about how others perceive them is a good way to learn – even if it doesn’t resonate with their own views. They could always validate the feedback by asking for second opinions from other people which will help clarity if the feedback is a universal perspective or the opinion of an individual.
In this light, today’s leaders need to be mindful of how much of their understanding of the challenges their employees face is based on what’s really going on and how much of it is based on what their minds have created. As Lao Tzu wrote, “To realize that you do not understand is a virtue; not to realize that you do not understand is a defect.”
Finally, there are several other benefits of being authentic:
Trust and respect: When you’re true to yourself, you not only trust the judgments and decisions that you make, but others trust you as well. They’ll respect you for standing by your values and beliefs.
Integrity: When you’re authentic, you also have integrity. You don’t hesitate to do the right thing, so you never have to second-guess yourself. Who you are, what you do and what you believe in – all of these align perfectly.
Ability to deal with problems: When you’re honest with yourself and others, you have the strength and openness to deal with problems quickly, instead of procrastinating or ignoring them altogether.
Realizing potential: When you trust yourself and do what you know is right, you can realize your full potential in life. Instead of letting others dictate what’s best for you, you take control of your life.
Confidence and self-esteem: You can trust yourself to make the right decisions when you’re being genuine and doing the right thing. In turn, this leads to higher self-confidence and self-esteem, greater optimism and more life satisfaction.
Less stress: How would you feel if every day you said what you meant, stayed true to yourself and behaved in accordance with this? Imagine the happiness and self-respect you’d feel! Being authentic to yourself is far less stressful than being someone you are not.
(Next week: Being trustworthy)
(Lionel Wijesiri, a corporate director with over 25 years’ senior managerial experience, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)