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Don’t ignore the dead fish: using feedback to improve your leadership

Thursday, April 7, 2016 - 17:24

By Yvonne Willich

Companies are surprisingly similar in what they claim to be their values, culture and execution, but there is a lot more variation in what actually happens at the coalface. Leaders have a crucial role in determining how well their organisations ‘walk the talk’ through their own conduct and the way they respond to others.

Most leaders would say their actions reflect their organisation’s values, and genuinely believe it. But many have a blind spot in their self-assessment. When it comes to judging your performance, personal reflection isn’t enough; only candid feedback from others can reveal the impact of your actions. The drive and optimism that leads to a person’s success, however, can sometimes make them disinclined to hear bad news about themselves or their endeavours.

It’s a natural first response to engage with supporters and ignore those who convey criticism or resistance. But it is vital that leaders can override their initial avoidance and irritation when confronted by negative views and genuinely seek to understand what is being said.

Failure to address problems or resistance does not cause them to disappear, they just go underground. A wise CEO once explained this to me as his ‘dead fish’ metaphor. As he said, a dead fish on the table is unpleasant but it can be dealt with. A dead fish that remains under the table only gets worse over time, until no-one can go anywhere near it.

Leaders who turn around an organisation’s culture tend to be brave enough to face any challenge, no matter how smelly, and emerge the stronger for it.

An appetite for the truth

A leader’s appetite for the truth has a strong impact on an organisation’s culture for two reasons. Firstly, it demonstrates the extent to which values such as honesty and integrity are genuinely important, and secondly it provides knowledge about the level of staff engagement with the organisation’s goals.

To use the metaphor of car travel, very few people would choose not to be informed about a problem which could prevent them from arriving at their destination. However, leaders who do not seek to understand resistance or negative feedback are doing this.

While most people fear the criticism that may come with honest feedback, it can also highlight positive aspects of leadership which leaders themselves may not have recognised as significant. Candid feedback is a road map showing leaders what to do more of – and less of – to achieve goals and create a healthy culture.

To establish whether honesty is valued and forthright dialogue is encouraged, the question every CEO should ask is not ‘Do I encourage the team to express their views candidly?’, but ‘How do I respond to criticism?’

Loyalty is an attribute of healthy cultures that often seems to be lacking in leadership teams, both in business and politics. It is interesting that people are more likely to feel loyal if they have had an opportunity to talk about their concerns and are listened to.

Enforced ‘cabinet solidarity’ without a forum for robust discussion results in people seeking alternative ways to express their frustration. This then results in a range of negative behaviours which impact the culture throughout the organisation.

Rules must apply to everyone

How poor behaviour is managed across the organisation is another important determinant of culture. People at all levels within an organisation can identify what is measured, what is rewarded and what is called out as unacceptable. Once again, the alignment with an organisation’s stated values is crucial.

Many of us have encountered the term ‘untouchables’ to describe a person who is beyond sanctions because of their perceived importance to the business. Frequently they generate revenue and are rewarded for that. In a healthy culture, people are confident that poor behaviour isn’t tolerated and the most senior leaders will make this clear regardless of who is involved.

To enable this to happen, the chief executive needs to give an organisation’s HR teams and internal monitoring functions the independence and authority to do their job without interference.

Yvonne Willich is the resident corporate psychologist at Kordomentha. She regularly assists with strategic organisational reviews on behalf of the firm’s clients.

This article orginally appeared in Leadership Matters, AIM's bimonthly magazine exclusively for AIM Members. To find out how you can be a part of Australia's peak body for managers and leaders, please click here.