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April 1, 2021
Vol. 78
No. 7

Empowered Leaders Soar with Feedback

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Learning to process feedback wisely is essential to school improvement—and personal growth.

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Driving home after school is usually the only quiet time I have to reflect on the events of the day. On one recent occasion, a large bird was taking flight as I was driving down a main street. For some reason unknown to me, the bird decreased its elevation and crashed into my windshield. Needless to say, I was startled and concerned about the bird's welfare, but I was unable to stop because traffic was moving at a fast pace. The thoughts about my day quickly shifted: What caused the bird to lose flight? Did something catch it by surprise? Was there an unexpected weight that was too much for it to bear? Something happened to take away the bird's ability to soar.
It struck me that the bird's plight was analogous to what can happen to school leaders when they receive feedback. Sometimes feedback is too much to sift through and can cause a leader to stumble or lose their zeal for the work. If not processed appropriately, the weight of feedback can break one's ability to soar.
However, leaders who are empowered rarely become overwhelmed by feedback. They intuitively know what to ask, when to act, and when to evaluate and adjust. Instead of letting the weight of feedback break them, they learn how to use it to their advantage.

The Art of Soliciting Feedback

As a former middle school principal and current district administrator, I've found that the easiest way to gather insight from others is to simply ask. You can't find what you are unwilling to search for, and when searching, you have to be open to receiving what comes your way.

Send a Survey

The quickest method for getting feedback from multiple people at once is to send a survey (I use SurveyMonkey or Google Forms). Surveys can be short and used as a weekly, quarterly, or yearly check-in tool; after an event; or after the launch of a campus initiative. For more in-depth surveys, I prefer to ask both open-ended questions and statements that I craft using a Likert scale. The open-ended questions provide the underlying rationale to the Likert scale responses.
When crafting a survey, ask questions that elicit feedback for improvement, not just affirmation. Instead of having teachers describe the great things they learned in a PD session you led, ask "How relevant was this professional learning session to your current work?"
Lastly, the data from a survey will be more meaningful if it is representative of the group you're surveying. If the response rate is low, consider pairing your survey with another feedback strategy to gather more information.

Lead a Focus Group

One of the most powerful ways to go deep into a topic is to conduct a focus group. I once conducted several student focus groups to compare how students perceived their experience at school with the feedback I collected from a staff survey. I also hosted parent focus groups to gauge their perceptions on the same questions.
Principals may want to keep focus groups small (for me, 4–6 participants are ideal) so the conversation feels more personal and informal. If you are leading the focus group, it is important to maintain your role as the facilitator: Although you may feel the need to jump in and respond to the feedback that's being shared, try to refrain. Your job is to remain impartial and keep the conversation moving with transition and follow-up questions. Listen intently, too, and take notes. These observations will help you later identify themes from the conversation.
The key to an effective focus group discussion is to use probing questions. The questions should be worded in a way that requires more than a yes or no response. Use "how" and "why" to drive the conversation deeper. Also, ask questions to which you don't already know the answer. The purpose of a focus group is to gather information that isn't readily available.
Below are questions I have used with teachers and students in my own practice:
  • How would you describe our school? What are its top two strengths?
  • In what areas would you like to see our school grow? Why should we focus on these specific areas first?
  • How would you prioritize the needs of our school?
Start with softball questions to get participants warmed up. Once they begin responding, allow the conversation to flow organically. The power in a focus group is that participants build off one another's comments and ideas. If the discussion becomes stagnant, prod further: "Why do you think that is?" or "What impact would this change have on our school? On others?" or "Is this challenge unique to our campus?"

Participate in Team Meetings

To get the pulse of what is happening with teams, leaders should also spend time observing teachers' PLCs. I was visiting a PLC once and the conversation was not going well. I could tell that the data being discussed was causing some discomfort because there was a discrepancy in student performance among teachers. However, that was not the main source of discomfort. Beneath the data were feelings of exhaustion and defeat. The efficacy of the teachers was being shaken because they taught the best way they knew how, but students did not respond as expected. Even though I entered as an observer, I jumped in as an engaged participant. I asked questions that helped get to the source of the tension: "What do you need?" and "How can I help?" I validated the teachers' feelings in the room and moved the conversation out of the sinking hole it was falling into.
As the school's principal, there was no way I was going to leave that meeting without identifying team and individual needs. While I provided feedback on what was occurring in the moment, the team reciprocated by sharing feedback on issues that needed to be addressed to support their learning, efficacy, and group dynamics.
Principals should also schedule team check-ins periodically throughout the year. These check-ins can occur during PLCs or as standalone meetings. If you have a large campus, enlist other administrators to help you with this work. Use an informal meeting structure so team members feel comfortable engaging in conversation. There is a great deal you can learn from watching, listening, and asking questions.

Differentiate Between Feedback and Advice

Feedback is typically used as an evaluation of an event, process, or performance that has already occurred. An effective way to gather insight that can lead to future change, however, is to ask for advice. In the article "Stop Asking for Feedback," Amantha Imber shares research from a Harvard Business School study that extols the virtues of advice over feedback. The study found that participants who were asked to give feedback on a job application for a tutoring position provided vague responses with general praise. By contrast, participants who were asked to provide advice offered more critical and actionable comments that led to future actions the person could take to improve.
Soliciting advice about my leadership style helps me to focus on specific areas of growth and identify actions that I can take to change my behavior. I think of feedback as a launching point for growth and advice as my guide for the journey. Notice the subtle difference in advice-oriented questions:
  • In what ways can I improve my communication so that it is clear and informative?
  • What is one specific action I can implement to support your growth?
  • In PLC meetings, how can I support you so that you are able to lead your team effectively?
When soliciting advice, be specific in your questioning and ask for concrete examples. For instance, "I think you are an effective communicator" does not identify the actions that make your communication effective. Follow up by asking, "What do I specifically do that makes my communication effective?" Remember, solicitation is the practice of trying to obtain something from someone. The clearer you are in your head about what type of feedback or advice you want to gather, the better your approach will be.

What Now? Organize, Act, and Reflect

As a leader, it is important to have a process for dealing with the feedback and advice you receive. Think of it this way: When you are out on a boat in the middle of a lake, there is only one tool that can help you get back to shore—the OAR. These simple steps (organizing, acting, and reflecting) can help you navigate feedback successfully and lead to meaningful action.

1. Organize the Feedback

Once you receive feedback or advice, take the time to organize and prioritize it. Oftentimes, leaders try to tackle every piece of feedback at once. Early in my leadership career, I wanted to fix everything right away. What I quickly learned, however, was that I needed to organize the feedback to identify which comments were about me as a leader (for me to act on) and which comments were about the organization as a whole (for the leadership team and me to act on).
When developing an action plan, categorize your feedback into two buckets: behavioral and process. Behavioral feedback focuses on specific leadership behaviors that you demonstrate. Process feedback focuses on systems and structures within your organization or school. Here are several examples:

Behavioral Feedback

Process Feedback

Communication StyleMeetings
ResponsivenessMaster Schedule
When determining where to start, focus on the feedback that is hindering your school culture from thriving or limiting student learning. When it comes to behavioral feedback, try to identify areas where you can achieve small wins. For example, if you receive feedback from staff about your lack of visibility in the building, intentionally schedule time on your calendar to leave your office. Plan to be present in different areas of the building on different days. Make yourself available and accessible while you are out in the "field."
Process feedback may need a more integrated approach and the involvement of your leadership team. If students are not demonstrating mastery as expected, and teachers are frustrated because students seem unmotivated or apathetic, work collaboratively to get to the root of the problem. Bear in mind, what we see on the surface is just a response to several layers of other issues. Instead of focusing on how to treat the symptoms (what is seen), dig deeper to identify the illness (beliefs and attitudes). Conduct a root cause analysis to get to the main issue:
  • Define the problem.
  • Ask why the problem is occurring.
  • For each answer given, ask why again. Repeat this step a total of five times.
  • Stick with facts and do not insert any assumptions.
Try taking the emotion out of process feedback. Personalizing such feedback can be immobilizing and prevent future action. Understand that process feedback is about something in the system that is not working. After you sit with the uneasy feelings that might arise, commit to moving forward. Whether you agree with the feedback or not, it is someone else's reality. Remember, leadership is not about how you see yourself but about how others see you.

2. Act on the Feedback

As the leader, you don't have a magic wand to fix everything that is wrong in your organization; you do, however, have the purview and responsibility to do something, especially when the feedback is behavioral.
At the end of my first year as principal at a middle school, I received some feedback that was hard to digest. I was not prepared for the scathing comments from teachers that were not meant to help me grow as a leader but to attack me personally. In not-so-kind words, they noted that I was too direct in my communication, held unrealistic expectations for staff, and played favorites. After spending time doing a bit of deep breathing, I organized the comments into behavioral and process buckets and gleaned what information I could from them. As difficult as it was, I was able to extract that when leading change initiatives, I needed to focus on communicating the "why" more than the "what." Staff didn't need to hear about the data, yet again. Instead, they needed me to appeal to their emotions, to underscore our moral imperative to do what's best for students.
Understanding that the feedback given on the survey was a valid response to the loss that many teachers felt from the recent change in leadership, I was able to respond accordingly. I attempted to be more open and asked staff to weigh in on new systems and structures, which increased their trust and ownership in the changes being made. I coupled high expectations with high support and ensured that the reason behind every change was clear and transparent.
To further inform my leadership behavior, I scheduled one-on-one meetings with members of my leadership team and asked for honest insight. Getting the experts in the room to address a personal or professional challenge is crucial. Behavioral changes require new learning, practice, failure, adjustments, and small wins along the way.
Finally, I presented the process feedback to my leadership team and we developed a plan to increase shared decision making as a strategy for organizational improvement. We crafted quarterly action steps that included accountability measures—Did we meet our goals?—and time for reflection. Interestingly, I found that the more I asked for and acted on feedback, the more staff willingly offered it up.

3. Reflect on the Feedback

Leadership is a journey of both constant reflection and continuous improvement. Journaling is a powerful way to process the feedback you receive. Look back at survey results and jot down common themes that arise. Record your successes and failures, your faculty's reactions and input. Writing about these things gives you the chance to practice clarity and candor with yourself.
Consider the following prompts to focus your reflection:
  • What pieces of feedback square with my current beliefs?
  • What pieces of feedback are harder for me to accept?
  • As I read the feedback, I am feeling …
  • How will I process the feedback so that I can use it to improve my performance?
You may have difficulty facing feedback without addressing your gut reaction to it: Are you feeling defensive, confused, angry? Be curious about those feelings and explore them further. An empowered leader understands that constructive feedback—no matter how much it stings—is about improving and changing leadership behavior: rarely is it meant to be a personal attack on one's character. By framing your thinking this way, you can see feedback as an essential tool in leadership and organizational growth. Consider whether you are committed to growing as a leader or are committed to being right.

A Worthy Challenge

Early in my leadership career, I was like the bird that took flight and failed. I was unable to soar because I was so weighed down by comments I took personally. When I began to reflect on and categorize that feedback, however, I gained a sense of control and focused my energy on improving my leadership skills. Just as teachers are charged with improving their instructional techniques to meet the needs of their students, leaders must evaluate their skills and techniques to meet the needs of the organization and the people they are serving. Empowered leaders who understand this and accept this challenge can effectively soar to new leadership heights.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Do you regularly ask staff for feedback on your leadership? If so, do you always act on it?

➛ What could you do to help teachers feel more comfortable providing honest feedback?

➛ How could categorizing feedback into "behavioral" and "process" buckets help you better organize the feedback you receive?

Sanée Bell is a central office administrator and former principal. She is the author of Be Excellent on Purpose: Intentional Strategies for Impactful Leadership (Lead Forward, 2019).

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