Don’t Get Mugged by Feedback

Most school leaders, including me, say, “yes, I want feedback on how I am doing.”  Of course, what most of us want is positive validation that we are doing the necessary tasks of leadership and would like to know our direct reports will give us good news.  That happens sometimes.

And, sometimes, depending upon the leaders’ behaviors, the feedback is negative and can be disheartening or threatening.  I retired for the fifth time in 2014.  The last written evaluation that I received, and I signed, was in 1992.  At the same time, as a principal, I was evaluated almost every day by somebody.  Supervisors, teachers, parents, students, etc. make a determination on our behavior and decisions daily.

One source of feedback, I received, was from my opponents.  I learned this from Peter Block’s book (1987) The Empowered Manager.  Peter’s quadrant with trust and agreement as axes, had allies, adversaries, bedfellows, and opponents.  Opponents were the people you trusted but don’t necessarily agree with.  Every school where I was principal, I quickly tried to identify those opponents.  Yes, there were agreements but the key was I trusted them to give me accurate feedback, even thought I didn’t like it very much at times.

As a leadership coach, I now use Stakeholder Centered Coaching by Marshall Goldsmith most of the time. I ask principals and leaders to find stakeholders who they trust to give the them accurate feedback.  I remember a quote from John Gardner, 1990, “Pity the poor leader with unfriendly critics and uncritical friends.”  If your best teachers, etc. won’t give you accurate feedback, you can go off a cliff and not even see the edge coming. This is not a fun position to be in.

Frank Wagner, a co-developer  of Stakeholder Centered Coaching, trained me in 2015.  There are only a few of us in education using this method which has been extremely successful in coaching business leaders. Since my training, when working with principals and central office, I ask this question to help them choose their stakeholders. “If this person comes into your office and tells you of a problem, your response is, this must be a problem because you trust their judgment. Choose that person.”  They don’t want to sandbag you and they don’t want to ‘suck up’ to you.  They are giving you unfiltered feedback.  Trust them.

Leaders, with the help of feedback from people they trust, will pick one or two things to make their leadership skills better.  Of course, this requires the leader to have the courage to receive feedback and take it seriously, the humility to listen and accept they don’t know everything, and the discipline to follow through.

This process is different than most evaluation procedures in schools.  Getting better as a leader is more than test scores, staff being happy, and managing supervisor directives.  Diane Zimmerman and I wrote about Stakeholder Centered Coaching process in schools in our 2018 book, 9 Professional Conversations to Change Schools.

When I read an article by Frank Wagner on mugging people based on feedback, I saw immediate application to schools and districts. You can read the article which is posted on the Learning Omnivores website – He suggests seven points to consider when using feedback to improve performance.  I put my thoughts after the seven points. They are:

1. Build in enough “soak time. Pressing for action, unless it is an emergency, does not give ample time to reflection, consider the possibilities, and plan new actions.  Most of us need to sleep on issues, soak up the new information, and decide how to modify our behavior

2.  Coach the person on what “not to” do. Peter Drucker, management guru, said most leaders need a “to don’t list.”  The Pareto Principle has been around for ages.  It is the 80/20 Rule.  Think about it, does 80% of your results come from 20% of your actions?  So, what are things that you do 80% of the time that only produce 20% of your results?  Most of us say we ever have enough time. Stop some of the actions that do not give the best results. Find a behavior that will produce better and/or more consistent results.

3.  Counterbalance the feeling of isolation created by the poor feedback. Silence and isolation can keep us from taking responsible actions.  When admitting you don’t know something or are not as good as you want to be, most people cut you some slack and will wait to see if you are serious about changing your behavior.

4.  Focus their attention on the “whole” picture. System thinkers tend to do better in the long run.  Making short-term decisions with long-term consequences can be devastating.  Another reason to involve people you trust is to get a wider view and complexities of the problems.  I get the whole picture by going to many people, who have a connection to an issue, rather than sitting in my office trying to figure the problem out by myself.

5.  Appeal to their higher instincts. There is a Native American story that involves two wolves. One wolf is the wolf of good, the other wolf is the wolf of evil.  When the young boy asks his grandfather which wolf wins in the end, the grandfather responds, “the one I feed the most.”  Which wolf are you feeding? Who wants to follow someone who is always negative?  I don’t.  See Olsen & Sommers, Trainer’s Companion.  AHAProcess, Inc. for this story and more stories.

6.  Get more into the details of action planning. As Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”  Planning is important and then real life happens. When planning, plan for options, plan B, plan C, etc.  This gives you flexibility when facing the problem.  Planning is one phase AND behavior is even more important. People watch what you do more than what you say. The more aligned words and actions are, trust increases.

7.  Build in quicker follow-up. We know that staff development without follow up is a waste of time and money.  It is the same with leadership. If there is not a commitment to follow through and follow up, words become shallow and worthless.  Actually, it is worse.  People will wait to see if your commitments stick or does it go the way of TTSP (This Too Shall Pass).  If the behavior changes are not long term, it will be harder and harder to get people to believe anything you say will stick long term

So, don’t get mugged by feedback.  Hug the feedback and say ‘thank you.’  Honor those willing to give it to you.  If you will use feedback to improve, get it, and be grateful.



Block, P.  (1987).  The empowered manager.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Gardner, J.  (1990).  On leadership.  New York:  The Free Press, Inc.

Olsen, W. & Sommers, W. (2004). Trainer’s Companion.  Baytown, TX: AHAProcess.

Sommers, W. & Zimmerman, D. (2018). Nine Professional Conversations to Change Schools.           Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin Press

Wagner, Frank.


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