Inclusive leadership: Have the courage to seek feedback

Inclusive leadership: Have the courage to seek feedback

by Felicity Menzies

Deloitte’s survey of inclusive leaders from Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Canada, and the U.S. shows that such leaders possess six fundamental traits that foster diversity and inclusion on their teams; cognisance of bias, curiosity, collaboration, commitment, cultural intelligence, and courage. This blog is concerned with the last trait listed—courage.

Inclusive leaders demonstrate courage in three ways:

First, inclusive leaders challenge mindsets and practices that stifle diversity. For example, by calling out bias or setting targets with accountability for hiring or promotion.

Second, inclusive leaders acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers and invite others to contribute their ideas. When leaders are humble enough to admit their limitations, they model collaborative problem-solving. In today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) business environment where prior methods cannot solve new problems, eliciting and integrating a diversity of thought is essential for challenging established practices and for breakthrough innovation. Command and control styles of leadership that penalise subordinates for challenging the status quo or raising novel solutions must give way to new styles of leadership that focus on fostering psychologically safe workplaces where all team members are empowered and willing to contribute their ideas and perspectives.

Third, inclusive leaders solicit honest feedback from followers. Harvard Business Review contributor’s Zenger and Folkman analysed 360-degree feedback assessments for roughly 4,000 leaders in one large organisation with an excellent track record of hiring and promoting diverse candidates and a reputation for inclusion. The researchers compared leaders’ self-ratings with ratings of those leaders by bosses, peers, and subordinates on two items:

  • “Takes initiative to support and include people of different backgrounds and perspectives.”
  • “Actively builds a climate of trust, appreciation, and openness to differences in thoughts, styles and backgrounds.”

The researchers reported that many leaders assume they are better at valuing diversity than they are. In particular, consistent with the Dunning-Kruger effect (unskilled people are particularly prone to thinking they are more skilled than they are), leaders who are the worst at valuing diversity are more likely to overrate their effectiveness, and leaders who are the most effective tend to underrate their effectiveness. The researchers conclude that ‘leaders might intend to be inclusive, and even think they are inclusive, but their impact on others might be very different’. The researchers also found a strong positive association between ratings of inclusiveness and overall leadership effectiveness. Leaders who were rated very poorly on valuing diversity and inclusion were rated in only the 15th percentile for their overall leadership effectiveness, while those who were rated in the top 10% of those two items were rated in the 79th percentile.

Techniques for seeking feedback from subordinates

Writing for McKinsey, Robert Kaplan observes that while individuals tend to have many people coaching them on their performance both formally and informally when they embark their career, as they progress through the ranks, leaders often receive less feedback on their day-to-day effectiveness. Indeed, many leaders report being taken aback by the criticisms made by subordinates regarding their leadership style and effectiveness in end-of-year formal 360 assessments. Moreover, in today’s fast-paced business environment, leaders benefit from real-time feedback on their strategic decision making and effectiveness. Rapid shifts in the competitive landscape put pressure on leaders to deliver optimal solutions quickly.

Traditional leadership models that endorse leading from the front may mean that directing subordinates comes more naturally for new leaders compared with seeking feedback from them. Inclusive leadership requires a different approach, yet many leaders are uncomfortable opening themselves up to criticism for fear that it may compromise their authority or damage perceptions of their leadership competency. Even if leaders do actively seek feedback, subordinates may be reluctant to offer it for fear of offending or embarrassing those who have significant influence over their career success and progression.

Fortunately, soliciting constructive feedback from subordinates is a skill that can be learned. Leaders who invest time and effort in seeking feedback get the best out of their teams and are rated at higher levels of effectiveness.

Kaplan offers leaders three suggestions on how they can attain the feedback they need to improve their effectiveness real-time:

1. Cultivate a network of junior coaches

Kaplan directs leaders to individually “interview” at least five of their direct reports, asking only one question: “What advice would you offer to help me improve my effectiveness? Please give me one or two specific and actionable suggestions. I would appreciate your advice.”

Kaplan suggests that although these conversations may be awkward at first, with gentle prodding to convince subordinates that they are sincere in seeking to improve their performance, leaders can encourage their subordinates to offer helpful feedback on how to improve their effectiveness. It is important that leaders act immediately on any criticisms raised to build trust and cultivate a long-term coaching relationship.

2. Develop your ‘soft’ leadership skills

In an earlier post, I addressed the importance of psychological safety for encouraging contributions, particularly ideas that are novel or challenge the status quo. Psychological safety can be fostered by focusing on developing ‘soft’ leadership skills including respectful questioning and active listening. Kaplan advises leaders to adopt a facilitator role in meetings. Rather than advocating for their predefined position and rejecting suggestions of others, leaders should frame questions for constructive debate and actively seek and consider input from others.

3. The ‘clean sheet of paper’ exercise

Kaplan suggests that once subordinates develop a level of comfort in contributing their ideas and offering feedback, leaders can engage their top team in a structured brainstorming exercise that provides valuable strategic insights. The ‘clean sheet of paper’ exercise involves creating a small group of approximately six high performers and challenging them to review the business strategy with a clean sheet of paper, asking them: “If you had to start this enterprise from scratch today, are these the markets we would serve? Are these the products we would offer? Are these the people we would hire? Is this the way we would organize, pay, and promote our people? What changes do we need to make, given our distinctive competencies and strategic aspirations?” The group are directed that they are not to come back to the leader until they have a list of recommendations and are given a reasonable period (6 weeks or so) to complete the exercise.

Leaders that apply Kaplan’s three suggested techniques for soliciting feedback from subordinates are less likely to be blindsided by a narrow field of vision and their cognitive blindspots. They are also better able to engage and retain diverse talent.

Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.