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Seek feedback from family, open the door to self-awareness

It’s possible that most leaders know more about their pets, cars and investments than they know about themselves.

Self-awareness-the degree to which one is conscious of one’s thoughts, feelings, beliefs, behaviors and destiny-might be the last but most important frontier of leadership. Why? Because self-awareness decreases knee-jerk decision-making and emotional over-reactions, two of the main roadblocks to leading effectively.

Nearly three decades of working with management teams and business-owning families has strengthened my conviction that employees, peers and clients stand to benefit much more from your increasing self-awareness than from anything you will ever tell them about them.

Family feedback

Of all the circumstances that might spark self-awareness, none is as telling, or as often disregarded, as the way a leader functions at home. Spouses and children see a leader’s character on full display. Their first-hand knowledge makes their feedback a likely treasure chest, potentially uncomfortable to open yet brimming with value.

The benefits of soliciting family feedback go beyond hearing perceptions about yourself. Done thoughtfully, asking for feedback facilitates connection. Psychiatry pioneer Murray Bowen once remarked that developing a one-on-one relationship with every living family member is the single most important strategy for building one’s maturity. Feedback solicitation can contribute to that goal.

Recently, I solicited feedback from my wife, Sunny; our three children, ages 25, 21 and 20; and my three siblings. I requested written, non-anonymous responses to four questions:

  • What adjectives best describe me, for better and worse?
  • What behaviors of mine are most helpful to your growth and confidence?
  • What behaviors of mine have impeded or discouraged your growth and confidence?
  • What questions might be helpful for me to think about?

I then arranged a face-to-face meeting with each family member to review responses.

What I didn’t anticipate

Although much of the feedback confirmed what I already knew, there were significant surprises.

Among the most striking insights was my realization that some family members see me over-relying on positive traits. For example, while some found my independence helpful, they also pointed out that my reluctance to ask for assistance reinforced an aura of invincibility. One sibling said that my unwavering motivation to improve morphed into "too much intensity," and my insistence on living by principles came across as "sometimes too rigid."

Asking family members to elaborate on their written comments helped me clarify or correct notions that I’d initially misunderstood. For example, one of my sons had written that I often respond to him "in passing, on a friendly but surface level." I heard this as a clear negative. When I asked him for more detail, he said, "I really like those interactions. It’s good for me to know we don’t always have to go into detail."

I heard a similar brain-twisting explanation from my wife, when I explored her comment that she enjoyed talking with me at the end of the day or on morning walks. "What do you like most about that?" I asked. "I like to talk to you because I know it calms you down," she said.

I would have guessed that she simply valued hearing what was going on in my life!

An important message

The single most important theme in the feedback I received from my children was the perception of me as over-involved and overly helpful: "When you try to catch me before I fall, it stops me from having to figure it out for myself." "When you give me unsolicited advice, my independence gets thwarted." "Your reminders and check-ups tell me you can’t let go."

I learned three lessons about myself from that feedback:

n Even though I coach leaders every day on how to "let go" and "strengthen others," I do not always walk my own talk. That’s not only embarrassing, it’s unacceptable.

n Most of the help I give others is automatic; I don’t even think about it. When the help I give turns out to be valuable, that often happens by chance, not by design.

n Even my well-intentioned help can harm others by keeping the recipients indebted to me. The possibility that I could be feeding dependency really got my attention.

Of course, I also heard positive feedback. Words like "steady," "engaged," "curious," "humorous" and "connected" came up more than once.

Guidelines for receiving feedback

Non-anonymous family feedback conversations can be trickier than typical 360-degree feedback processes. If you embark on a project to raise your self-awareness by asking family members how they perceive you as a leader, consider these guidelines:

n Feedback is merely perception, not facts. Most feedback is a mixed bag: Some of it is spot-on, some is marginally useful, and some merits the trash can. All comments should be taken with a bucket of salt. The gold can be sifted out after the interaction. The receiver of feedback is always the final arbiter of value.

  • All feedback says at least as much about the giver as about the receiver. Motives for giving flattering or unflattering feedback are complicated and never 100 percent pure.
  • To keep the feedback coming, it’s vital to avoid being defensive, even when the comments are not easy to hear. I have found it useful to respond to difficult feedback by asking for more detail. Somehow, asking for more enables me to listen better.
  • The feedback process-the opportunity it offers to connect with important others, stay in meaningful contact and hear what they have to say-might be more important than the specifics discussed. After skillfully executed feedback, relationships often seem a little looser and easier. Leaders typically report feeling less anxious.

Too often, leaders keep themselves emotionally comfortable by focusing on themselves too little and on others too much. Soliciting and hearing family feedback can help restore that imbalance by boosting a leader’s most important tool, self-awareness.

The start of a new year seems like an ideal time to begin this process.

John Engels is the founder of the Advanced Leadership Course and president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a Rochester executive development firm. He can be reached at [email protected]


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