FACULTY FOCUS // SPRING 2014
An Easy Way to Become a Better Leader
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.
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.
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.
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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