One month after Paul Graham started Y Combinator, he came up with a pithy phrase that became the institution’s motto — “Make something people want.” The underlying philosophy here is that you have to listen to your customers — even if they tell you that they don’t want what you’ve built, and in many cases, even if they really hate it.
But when you’re a founder, customers aren’t the only constituency you’ll need to satisfy and delight. There’s also your team. If you want to make something people want, you’ll also need to make yourself someone people want to work for.
The Value of All Feedback
Negative feedback can be hard to receive. My co-founder and I recently went through Y Combinator, where feedback — both positive and negative — is seen as an essential ingredient for a successful company. This means cultivating a greater openness to and curiosity about negative feedback.
We started Torch as a platform for developing leadership within organizations in the tech sector and beyond. When we start working with any company, we begin with a 360 review of their leadership, using surveys that they and their team members directly answer. We ask the leader to rate him or herself on several statements, and then we ask the leader’s manager, peers, and direct reports to rate them using the same statements.
Growth orientation — our term for openness to negative feedback — is one of 11 leadership domains our 360 platform analyzes. Because of our methods, we can measure a leader’s self-awareness and reveal blind spots by helping the leader see what their colleagues have known for a long time.
As you can see below, tech leaders believe they are quite strong in growth orientation, and more skilled at metabolizing negative feedback than in vision, domain expertise, mentoring, adaptability, empathy, transformational leadership, execution, and conflict management.
They not only see themselves as growth-oriented in relative terms (i.e., “I’m better at X than Y and Z.”), they see themselves as growth-oriented in absolute terms (i.e., “I’m good at X, period.”). On average, leaders rate themselves as 4.02 out of 5 on growth orientation, which is equivalent to a “Good” rating on a five-point scale from Very Poor to Very Good.
However, when you ask tech leaders’ colleagues for their assessment of the leaders’ growth orientation, they tell a different story. In the graph below, bars on the left indicate that leaders rate themselves higher in these domains than their colleagues, while bars on the right indicate that leaders rate themselves lower in these domains than their colleagues. Blue bars indicate a statistically significant difference.
Only in growth orientation do leaders rate themselves significantly higher than their colleagues rate them. In the next six domains (i.e., the grey bars), there is no significant difference between the two sets of ratings, and in the last four domains, leaders’ colleagues rate them significantly higher than the leaders rated themselves.
The main point here is that leaders generally overestimate their openness to negative feedback (i.e., growth orientation) and their ability to use that feedback as a roadmap for development. This is a critical blind spot to uncover, and one that Torch coaches are very familiar with. It’s the first step in helping clients adopt what Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset,” the belief that talent can be developed through “hard work, good strategies, and input from others.”
Pushing Away Negative Feedback Hurts Leaders
Without a growth mindset, leaders limit their development by relying on what they currently know about themselves. Because negative feedback is at best humbling, and at worst too painful to accept, leaders tend to discourage negative feedback in a variety of ways, from dismissing it (“That’s not true!”) to retaliating against its source (“You attacked me unfairly!”) to evading responsibility (“It’s your fault not mine!”). Thus, the first step in working with these clients is to help them pivot away from defensiveness and toward learning to embrace negative feedback for its potential to help them grow.
If you have trouble with negative feedback, consider the following brief exercise. For 5 minutes, step into an imaginary mental world in which the last negative feedback you received is completely accurate. It’s not coming from an untrustworthy source, or a colleague with an axe to grind. It’s not half true, partially true, or sometimes true. In this world, that negative feedback is entirely spot on. Now think about the implications of this feedback for your leadership. What aspects of yourself would you need to change so that this feedback no longer applies to you?
The answer to this question usually involves overcoming real developmental challenges like learning to see the value in others’ perspectives or confronting your own biases and insecurities. Finally, ask yourself what the first step toward addressing this negative feedback would look like. Perhaps a good first step would be a conversation to gather more information or diffuse tensions. Now step back into your everyday world. Notice how easy it is to discount the negative feedback from your normal vantage point. It’s likely that there is at least a grain of truth to the last negative feedback you received, but you may not see it under normal circumstances.
Moving to Growth Orientation
The pivot toward a growth orientation builds self-awareness by closing the gap between how the leader perceives his or her abilities and how their colleagues perceive them. It expands the overlapping region in the Venn diagram between leader and colleague, building trust and a strong foundation for future growth.
Insights gleaned from 360 reviews give Torch coaches valuable perspective on structuring the coaching relationship so that our clients become more skilled leaders. They also highlight the importance of using data and rigorous assessment to guide the coaching relationship. Learn more about the value of self-awareness, openness to feedback, and how to have a strong, impactful one-on-one with members of your team in our recent how-to guide to active listening: