Candid, constructive feedback can be one of the most powerful tools in a leader’s professional growth. Yet for many leaders, obtaining clear, useful feedback that moves their careers feels akin to finding a needle in a haystack.
Marcus Buckingham, one of America’s top business consultants, famously began his 2011 Harvard Business Review article on the topic by saying, “I should love 360 degree surveys. I really should.” He went on to explain that although great leaders are aware of their strengths and weaknesses, competency-based 360 surveys often miss the mark by providing subjective data that doesn’t move the recipient forward.
While the landscape of 360 feedback has evolved since 2011, my assessment is that the core challenge has not fundamentally changed. Most companies still use imperfect, subjective 360-degree surveys. And many leaders continue to grapple with how to use the data to inform their professional growth.
In 2006 I began my career in training and executive coaching as a 360-feedback specialist for a boutique training firm that served prestigious corporate, government, and nonprofit clients like Capital One, NASA, and the Ford Foundation. Our secret weapon was a simple interview-based 360 feedback assessment paired with a complex, nuanced, and labor-intensive client debrief process. Organizations would send their execs and top teams to us after internal training programs had been exhausted and the leaders still weren’t “walking their talk.”
Working in this high-stakes environment, I learned two important lessons that shape how I approach leadership, professional growth, and sustainable transformation:
- Most people have a hard time articulating their gut-level assessments about another’s behavior in the workplace into understandable and useful feedback.
- The two most important factors in whether or not 360 feedback makes a meaningful impact on the leadership of the recipient is the recipient’s ability to translate that feedback into something that fits their mental model of their own behavior.
Furthermore, two core factors support this translation:
- The ability to step out of the binary good/bad, effective/ineffective framework and take a broader view of their own behavior as working/not working based on the needs of any given situation.
- Self-awareness, on the part of the recipient, about the core, default pattern in their existing leadership approach and a humble willingness to engage with it.
In my women’s leadership handbook Guts & Grace, I refer to this central organizing principle as the Core Dilemma—a constellation of behaviors, thoughts, feelings, and qualities of presence that represent your primary default mode of operation in leadership. This pattern of behavior, which I sometimes refer to as a leadership Achilles heel, gets shaped early in a leaders’ career (or even teenage or childhood years) and becomes too narrow when a leader begins to rise.
When a leader develops a thoughtful analysis of their Core Dilemma, they can measure any incoming feedback up against this existing construct and glean valuable insight, even when the feedback is poorly articulated, unfair, or just bad.
When they pair this understanding with a well-articulated developmental plan or a simple growth intention that inspires, next-level professional growth can happen quickly.
At Guts & Grace Leadership we use the Core Dilemma tool to help women and diverse leaders build this type of self-awareness as a foundational practice in self-advocacy. But the tool can work for any leader who is looking to level-up. When you have a mature understanding of your own growth edges, you can build a believable case for yourself at performance review time.
We have developed a free coaching guide to help you have better feedback conversations with your team immediately.
However, it’s important to walk your talk before asking your team to comply. As a next step, I suggest reflecting on your leadership journey, including the good, bad, and ridiculous feedback you’ve received over the years, with an eye for an organizing principle that may be your own Core Dilemma.
Then, share about it—what is it, how it come to be, and how are you working with it today— with your team. Chances are, they already know.