Self-reflection and feedback – the basis of successful leadership
Executive Education / 27 August 2021
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Sonja Thiemann berät seit rund 20 Jahren Entscheider und Personaler in der Gestaltung und Umsetzung strategieorientierter Organisations- und Personalentwicklungsmaßnahmen und ist seit 12 Jahren als Coach und Trainerin tätig. Ihre Programme und Lernarchitekturen werden von Unternehmen der Industrie wie des Finanzsektors auf nationaler sowie internationaler Ebene durchgeführt und sind z.T. integraler Bestandteil von akademischen Hochschulprogrammen geworden.

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In organisations, you’ll often observe typical, recurring patterns of behaviour that make it difficult for managers, customers and employees to achieve their common goals. And yet these collective patterns reproduce themselves over and over again, resulting in creeping frustration and resignation in the face of an apparent lack of capacity for self-reflection, self-renewal and lasting change. While the reasons are complex, they are easy to identify:

  • Fear of conflict and negative consequences – especially by expressing what many people are thinking to those responsible for clarifying or improving the situation.
  • Linguistic ineptitude – the difficulty of raising issues without upsetting personal relationships, i.e. without blaming, lecturing or shaming individuals or groups.
  • Reluctance to take responsibility – given that there are plenty of other people in the organisation who could take action.
  • Unconsciously adopting or mirroring behaviour – especially patterns of behaviour that have long become entrenched and appear to work well (self-reinforcing process of exacerbation).
  • Staying in one’s comfort zone – by following the mainstream rather than swimming against the prevailing tide of attitudes and behavioural routines.

Recognising and identifying these psychosocial phenomena, which characterise human interactions in many organisations, is no easy task. But it is even more difficult to influence them as a leader. The question is: can we influence them at all, and if so, how?

Lasting change is impossible in the absence of self-reflection and regular feedback!

Asserting that self-reflection coupled with a regular feedback process is essential for continuous improvement and change has become something of a truism. Nevertheless, experience shows that if one chooses to disregard the emotions, intellectual reflection and objective reasoning alone are simply not enough. And yet in professional circles, emotions are often ignored. In our efficiency-driven business world, displaying or even talking about feelings appears to be taboo – who hasn’t heard the phrase “Let’s just stick to the facts!” in a meeting?

But debates or reviews that are stripped of emotion do not result in lasting changes in behaviour. Negative primary emotions in particular – such as anger, resentment, sadness or disappointment – are powerful triggers and motivators for initiating change; rather than demonising them, we should use them to devise creative or innovative solutions. This is where empathy comes in and plays an important role. Without empathy, you run the risk of polarisation and escalation instead of broadening horizons, growing and evolving.

Empathy boosts bonding and trust – the basis for courage and self-confidence!

By empathy, we mean the ability to recognise our own as well as others’ feelings and intrinsic motivation; to inwardly identify with someone else’s situation. In his book on emotional intelligence, Daniel Goleman describes some of the key criteria and provides practical advice on how to progress personal development and handle emotional “trigger points” – that is, stimulus-response patterns in our own behaviour – more effectively.

A healthy level of empathy enables us to respectfully acknowledge the concerns of others and take them into account to an appropriate extent – without, however, compromising the clarity or objectives of our discourse.

The guiding principle “hard on the issue, soft on the person” can be helpful in finding the right mindset for feedback interviews. Especially in emotionally charged discussions, we tend to be unclear and vague when arguing about the actual issue, but verbally and non-verbally hard on the person with whom we’re arguing. This makes it impossible to achieve a positive outcome and tends to provoke further deterioration rather than achieving clarity.

The recipe for effective leadership: anonymised feedback and self-reflection

Seeking out anonymised feedback at regular intervals is a vital prerequisite for fostering personal development, especially for senior managers and executives. To identify your own inappropriate patterns of perception and behaviour, it helps to reflect on:

  • recurring conflicts
  • experiences that cause lasting resentment
  • experiences that trigger feelings of hurt, shame or guilt
  • repeated feedback on certain types of behaviour
  • emotions that cause long-term stress, such as depression, grief, anxiety, exhaustion, and so on.

Experience shows that regular self-reflection, sharing and continuing education with the support of a coach or sparring partner strengthen both the ability to empathise as well as psychological resilience – qualities executives need more than ever in today’s VUCA world.