Finding our strengths is the foundation for learning to lead

11th March 2024

Feedback at work conjures delight for some and terror for others. Those who look forward to hearing what others have to say about them probably have experienced feedback for learning and growth, while those who dread it may have only had to give and receive feedback in the context of performance problems.

I recently ran a session on giving and receiving feedback for aspirant heads of independent schools. We focused on affirming strengths, using a new online questionnaire recently developed by Thornhill Associates. Each participant had elicited stories from their close associates describing when they had been at their best and what that demonstrated about them.

We human beings are notoriously poor at reading our impact on others, so it was affirming for participants to hear when their peers recognised the same strengths as they recognised in themselves, and to discover strengths their peers saw that they might not have seen in themselves. The feedback gave them clues about how to draw on their natural strengths in leadership positions.

I remember very well the impact on my own career and happiness early in my management journey when my team used a team roles questionnaire to let me know that they saw me as adding value through creativity. What a relief that was! I had been trying hard to meet my own stereotyped expectations about what a good team leader should do; but they gave me permission to express my strength and let others take on the other roles where they were better than I.

Giving and receiving feedback would have a much better reputation if we thought about it as affirming the impressive capacities that we all have in different ways. We don’t fear hearing what people like about us!

But of course we really crave to hear the other side too. What are the gaps I need to fill to become a better manager? And how do I actually come across to others? That is where the full 360-degree feedback questionnaire comes in. It allows people to identify both strengths to nurture and areas for improvement. 

Unfortunately we tend to notice the bad news far more than the good news. One participant in the workshop described skimming quickly through all the positive stuff in a 360 report she received, so she could focus on identifying the gaps she needed to work on. She sounded strong enough to cope with that approach, but some people may be damaged by failing to notice the nine affirming comments while only seeing the one critical comment. That is why professional facilitation of 360-degee feedback is important.

Not only do strengths affirm us, but they also provide clues to how we can go about addressing the gaps. We can use what we do well to address the things we don’t. Extroverts can learn to ask questions, and thus use their natural sociability to learn empathy.  Introverts can use their listening to make connections and use that to be empowering leaders. 

At a deeper level, mature leadership requires integrating our best selves with what Carl Jung called our shadow selves. These are not just gaps in ability, but aspects of ourselves we want to reject, overcome, or hide from others and ourselves. It’s the bad stuff we project onto others to avoid facing in ourselves. It contains the demons that derail careers. Facing our shadow is hard work, best done in conversation with a skilled helper. 

Doing justice to the shadow would take us way beyond the scope of this column. But it is essential work if we are to achieve the maturity and stability required for effective leadership. And we won’t have the courage to begin until we have accepted our strengths at the deepest level and lost our fear of knowing ourselves.

Jonathan Cook, a Counselling Psychologist and Chairman of the African Management Institute. If you’d like to read previous columns in this series or ask Jonathan a question please visit http://www.africanmanagers.org/jonathan-cook

Related posts

eskort mersin - afvoer verstopt