The Impact of a Leader\u2019s Mindset on Performance Feedback

Many leaders find managing for high performance uncomfortable, because they fear that giving feedback on poor performance will result in a heated exchange. They can even overlook or even avoid giving recognition for high performance, fearing that employees will see it as just meeting expectations. In addition,, finding the right words in a work setting can be difficult.

Understanding our personal lens on how organizations work (our organization mindset) and adjusting our thinking will change our behavioral approach so we can become more effective in leading for high performance in our organizations and teams.

Research in both large and small organizations over 10 years indicates that who we are, how we perceive the way the world works and how we show up in organizations (our way of being) can help or hinder our effectiveness as a leader. As leaders, we perceive our world through the lens of our personal life journey and through our experience of which approaches resulted in successful outcomes for the organizations we have worked in. These experiences impact our preferred mindset, and the perceptions and thoughts driven by our mindset shape our behavior and responses to our environment and the people in it (see Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset” and Frederic Laloux’s book “Reinventing Organizations”).

Becoming aware of the perceptions and thoughts that shape our approach is the first step to understanding our assumptions about performance and how to manage it. Then, we can start to make choices about how to reframe our leadership approach more successfully.

Below is a model developed with several hundred leaders in differing organizational environments and business contexts over a period of 10 years. The underlying premises for the model came from research on stages of development for organizations and for people (see Ken Wilber’s book “Integral Psychology”). It presents a perceptual view of how organizations work.

Leaders can use the model as an introspective tool and a framework for talking with their teams to develop approaches that accelerate growth and change. By identifying and understanding the impact of personal mindset preference, leaders can actively make a choice to change if the impact of that mindset constrains their success in leading others. As their perceptions and associated beliefs drive behavior, making such a choice can result in an immediate difference in how they lead.

Let’s examine the different mindsets and their likely impact during performance discussions with employees:

The idiosyncratic mindset is egocentric, which means that the leader will view as a personal threat any mistakes or approaches to work that appear to question their importance or challenge them. Their performance feedback will be reactive and defensive (and, hence, idiosyncratic), and their employees will often view it as a personal attack. Consequently, this mindset limits employees’ personal development and constructive learning, which, in turn, limits the organization’s development and growth. On the other hand, the leader will give positive feedback to the team members whom they see as supporters, which can lead to perceptions of cronyism.

The autocratic mindset assumes that success comes from a strong, directive leader, who protects against threats. Identification with the group is important, and the leader will measure performance success against an individual’s ability to be an integral part of the group and achieve leader-directed outcomes. Performance feedback tends to focus on the person and their loyalties first rather than what they have done, so it will be personal. Consequently, performance evaluations can be emotional.

A leader with a bureaucratic mindset is process-driven, so he or she will likely give feedback only at scheduled performance review meetings and will base it on hard metrics. Many people with a bureaucratic leader struggle to understand how they are perceived or valued. If the leader is conflict-avoidant, these sessions may not be conducted face to face, but feedback is delivered online, if at all.

Understanding that everybody has an important contribution to make in delivering results, and that people and teams are more effective when they are not bound by hierarchical expectations, is fundamental to the democratic mindset. Leaders see performance as the outcome of people who work together to achieve goals, and their self-perception is usually as am equal team member. The challenge in managing performance is giving feedback to perceived peers, which can result in giving unclear feedback  in the effort not to offend.

The integrator mindset sits at the highest level of human development. Unfortunately, even if leaders reach this stage of development, their past organizational experience may mean they do not display this mindset and behaviors in the workplace. However, when they do, they are likely to perform well personally and lead others to develop to their highest level. Their feedback is based on the ability to trust and recognize people and, at the same time, recognize where there are performance gaps.

The integrator mindset approach to performance management is to do so continuously and to proactively engage others in continuous improvement. The leadership approach is emotionally intelligent, so people understand clearly what is important. The leader also engages each employee in creating their performance development plan. If and when an individual fails to perform over time and the leader decides that they person can no longer remain in their role, it will not be a surprise to them. There will have been ongoing developmental discussions and actions, and leaving or reaching an agreement on a role change will be mutual.

Regardless of their mindset, leaders can use this model as a tool to reflect on their approach and adjust it to move toward an integrator approach. Brief, daily developmental reflection is a good practice; for example, they can ask themselves, “How well have I worked with my team today to achieve our performance against objectives?” or, “How well did I provide performance feedback?” This daily reflection should identify what they could have done better. A personal strengths and gaps analysis of these behaviors will help leaders identify more specifically what needs to change.

Negative and Positive Feedback

Negative feedback is important for personal development and change. However, leaders should make sure that it is specific to what a person has done, not about who they are. Negative feedback also should include a discussion on alternative behaviors.

Leaders should provide positive as well as negative feedback to improve performance. Ensuring that people receive positive, personal feedback along with the negative helps prevent defensiveness, engages people in continuous improvement and provides the recognition that everybody wants.

Finally, it is important to seek and receive feedback as well as to give it. Doing so supports not only personal development but also sets an expectation that feedback is the norm in an organization seeking to continuously improve its performance.

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