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Should leaders value honesty over harmony?

A true story…

A few years ago I was backstage at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Seated in the iconic venue that night were around 5,000 expectant people. On top of that, the show was being broadcast live to millions on national TV.

I had done my on-stage bit and found myself backstage mixing with celebs and artists who were about to do theirs. I noticed one of the celebs (a well known TV personality whose blushes I shall spare) was just about to walk on stage. As he was being introduced he sneezed, took out a tissue and blew his nose.

Let’s just say that didn’t go well for him.

Some of the contents of his nasal passage ended up in the tissue but a fair amount escaped and was now lodged firmly in his beard.

What was I to do? No one else had spotted it.

He was about to go live on TV with a beard full of bogey.

In that moment I presumed he would value my honesty over some sort of pretend harmony. (It would have been less risky for me to keep quiet and let him address the nation with snot on his face.)

So I plucked up the courage and I told him.

He quickly wiped up. I gave him the all clear and he walked out on stage to rapturous applause.

When the show finished he sought me out and thanked me profusely. We kept in touch for a few years after. As a joke, I even sent him a box of Kleenex at Christmas!

Let’s not be simplistic here. Offering honest feedback rather than clinging onto a bit of faux harmony is a big risk to any relationship.

Ask any husband who has had to negotiate the, “Am I fat?” question from his wife who is struggling to get into a new pair of jeans. If he answers yes, she will be angry that he is saying she is fat. And if he answers no she’ll be angry because he’s obviously lying because the jeans don’t fit!

If you are ever going to get better as leader or a communicator (and you don’t want to be onstage with a metaphorical bogey in your beard) you can’t do without risking some relational harmony and asking for honest feedback.

Here’s my top four ways for you to find and embrace honest feedback..

1. Ask for it

I spent 3 weeks last year touring the UK with Jason Perkins who leads our sister network in Australia & New Zealand. After every masterclass session he taught Jason walked off stage, sat down next to me and asked for feedback. How could he do it better next time? This conversation became part of our daily routine. Then it got a whole lot more personal. As I drove him to the airport for his long flight home he said, Duncan, what have you noticed about me? Where do I need to pay more attention? Where can I get better in life?”

I would never have volunteered my opinions if Jason hadn’t asked. Your team may not have the courage to offer you feedback if you don’t ask and make honest feedback part of your daily routine.

If you want some personal feedback try this rather risky question: “What’s it like living on the other side of me?” It could be a game changer if you ask the right person.

2. Ask more questions & give fewer excuses

If you ask for honest feedback then don’t get all defensive with your responses. Otherwise they’ll never be willing to be honest with you again.

In my experience the best way to respond to any critique is with a question that digs a little deeper. Because great questions always lead to better evaluation.

If you want some honest evaluation about an event or your performance then learn to sit and listen. And if you have to speak, make it in the form of a question.

3. Express gratitude to those who give it

You can learn to be a better leader, communicator and Jesus follower from every piece of feedback – even if its the kind that feels kinda personal or negative. Thanking someone for taking a risk and sharing what they’ve noticed shows your willingness to be open handed and to keep growing as a leader.

If you put their comments into practice make sure you circle back and let them now how it went. It will make them realise their investment was worth it.

4. Regularise it so it becomes part of your teams culture

Ask for feedback at every turn. You should be regularly using this simple yet powerful question in your leadership settings: What do you think? It’s a question that shows you care and value others opinions.

Make even the seemingly trivial everyday activities an opportunity for feedback & evaluation. You overhear a colleague’s conversation or you get cc’d into a team members email to their volunteers – is there an opportunity to praise them or show them where they can improve?

Evaluation is critical to improvement. Its so much more than something to tick off your leadership ‘to do’ list. Its a rare gift you can give your team that will help you grow closer and help you get better.

There is no doubt that you are going to sneeze at some critical leadership moment. And if you’ve created a culture of honest feedback where people don’t feel intimidated to share opinions, then you won’t be left on stage with a bogey in your beard.

I am learning…

  • to welcome and seek feedback because I want to get better. I want to understand what others can see in me that I don’t. And if I apply that feedback it will sharpen my performance and my character.

I am learning…

  • to give feedback because I care about others, and want people around me to get better. I know honest feedback is a risk to a relationship, it can be difficult and easy to misinterpret. So I choose to steer clear of harshness and generalisations in these conversations.

A Free Resource: Jason Perkins Soul Care masterclass –

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