SPRING, 2014


FACULTY FOCUS // SPRING 2014

An Easy Way to Become a Better Leader

by Terry Kosdrosky

Professor Susan Ashford's Work Shows the Importance of Feedback in Leadership Development.

Business leaders have a lot of responsibilities. One that comes with the territory is continual improvement. U-M Ross Professor Susan Ashford has studied leadership development and managerial effectiveness for years. A faculty affiliate of the Ross Leadership Initiative, her interest in feedback in organizations goes back to her PhD dissertation. One problem she's found is that people usually think about feedback from the manager's view. But her research has uncovered a counterintuitive fact: You can make yourself a better leader by asking for feedback. It's relatively easy – and free.

The catch is that you should ask for feedback from subordinates, peers, and supervisors. It's something many are reluctant to do, but Ashford's work shatters the misgivings and shows the benefits of taking the leap. She's also found some simple steps that will maximize the effect. "If you really want a learning organization, the leader has to be an active learner," says Ashford, the Michael & Susan Jandernoa Professor of Management and Organizations. "To do this, you have to hit your most vulnerable area and that's learning about yourself. One of the best ways to do that is to seek feedback and seek it up, down, and sideways."

Her feedback strategy is outlined in a chapter she wrote in the new book Experience-Driven Leader Development, which was co-edited by U-M Ross Professor D. Scott DeRue.

Don't Fear the Feedback

If seeking feedback makes one a better leader, why don't more do it?

"A lot of people think seeking feedback, especially from subordinates, will make them look weak or insecure," Ashford says. "But the opposite is true. People think more highly of leaders who seek feedback. They are viewed as approachable, open, and caring." The other reason is the simple human urge to avoid hearing something negative. Most leaders put in long hours and don't want to hear that not everything is rosy or that some initiatives simply don't work. But if you want to be a good leader you must know yourself, and your effect on those around you, Ashford says.

Getting Started

Before asking for feedback, you should think about an area you want to improve.

"It's important to start the process here so you know what you're looking for," she says. "This can be something about you as a leader, or something more general about the organization or team. Being specific will give you better answers than a general, ‘How am I doing?'"

The next step is to ask for feedback, ask for it directly, and make it routine.

For example, consider starting staff meetings with a feedback-seeking question. This also can be done in one-on-one meetings. "When this becomes part of a routine, leaders get better information and the staff sees them doing it," she says. "That's good for morale and puts the leader in a better light." You might consider a more indirect method of seeking feedback, such as asking staff and peers more general questions and listening for cues about your leadership. Even with that method, you should first think about a specific area to focus on.

Creating a Culture

Leaders who seek feedback do more than help themselves. They promote a culture of open feedback and encourage others to follow suit. "If the boss seeks feedback, it's more likely the staff will seek feedback and that creates a better organization," Ashford says. "The culture becomes one where people seek to continually improve and gain a better understanding of their strengths, weaknesses, and how others see them. That makes it more likely the whole company or organization will flourish." All it takes is overcoming a little fear, setting a goal, and establishing a routine.


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