Why Leaders Avoid Giving Feedback

By: Grant W. Levitan

Imagine this: it’s time for your quarterly performance review. You’ve carved precious time out of your calendar to meet with your manager, gathered any questions you might have, and downed a gallon of coffee the day of. But after weeks of anticipation and mental preparation, all you’re told is:

“You’re doing a great job—keep it up!”

You’d hoped for actionable feedback, not a well-intended compliment. What gives?

Many of our most important learnings and career tipping points have come from meaningful feedback. Yet we are often uncomfortable with delivering feedback despite its importance. We hesitate, procrastinate until the annual review, or simply avoid it altogether. And curiously, the closer one is to the C-suite, the less feedback one receives. 

I’ve heard countless senior executives share the same story: “It’s been years since I’ve gotten direct feedback or had a performance review from my boss.” However, receiving feedback in the latter half of one’s career is just as important as it is in the beginning. In fact, it can be argued that it is even more crucial to receive feedback later down the line, given the level of impact senior executives have on their organizations. 

So why the feedback avoidance? 

RELATIONSHIP SLIPPAGE 
One reason, as stated in the book Fair Talk by Sergey Gorbatov and Angela Lane, is that “Consciously or subconsciously, feedback is perceived as a threat, something we as social beings try to avoid; the risk of harming the relationship looms larger than the risks to the recipient’s performance and career.”

  • Well-placed feedback is a gift—one that seldom puts a solid relationship in jeopardy. By providing feedback, we facilitate our direct reports’ ability to meet their career objectives and to realize their own personal visions. By withholding feedback, we compromise their ability to meet the requirements of their role and deliver stellar results that secure their jobs. 

PURSUIT OF PERFECTION
In our desire to be fair, accurate, and helpful, we worry so much about the content of the message that we wordsmith it to death. 

  • Instead, remember that the delivery and the nonverbals often have a greater impact than the actual content of our message. You have the person’s best interests at heart and are authentically aligned with their ambitions; this almost always comes across when presented with a positive mindset. 

FEAR OF BRINGING THEM DOWN 
We inherently desire to build people up. It’s easy to think that glowing feedback (“you’re great; don’t change a thing”) will raise their confidence and boost their performance. Perhaps they’re a superstar, and we fear that giving them constructive feedback will discourage and push them to seek roles elsewhere. 

  • However, if they’re truly a superstar, they won’t appreciate softball messages and may seek out a new leader to provide them with direct feedback—perhaps in a new company altogether.

OLD DOG, NEW TRICKS
“The executives are set in their ways, so why waste the effort?” Or, “I’m not willing to change, so I won’t ask them to.” Sound familiar? 

  • The truth of the matter is no one is too old to grow. Feedback, even if delivered with positive intent, may not always be well received. However, emotionally mature executives will reflect on and benefit from constructive feedback every time. Those who are too narcissistic or set in their ways to internalize feedback should probably be counseled out of the organization.

FINANCIAL RESULTS ARE ALL THE FEEDBACK THEY NEED 
So, why go beyond that and conduct an extended review?

  • This takes a pretty narrow view of leadership. An executive can achieve superior financial results in the short term while simultaneously engaging in behaviors that contribute to the organization’s downfall. Leadership behaviors live on in the organization for years to come. How the job gets done makes the real difference in building sustained business success over time. 

Feedback is central to growth and purposeful development. Becoming more comfortable with giving feedback necessitates a shift in mindset from fear of doing harm to “I’m in your corner and want to give you something that is truly valuable.” Be unapologetic about your pursuit and delivery of quality feedback—after all, to know is to grow. 
 

 

 

Grant W. Levitan is a senior partner in the Chicago office. For more than 30 years, Grant has brought wise counsel to executives, helping them to lead change, prepare for globalization, and move into the CEO chair.

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