Performance Feedback & Personal Mastery

A critical double act



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With the end of the year fast approaching, many organizations are gearing up for their annual performance review. And the discussion about the (in)effectiveness of performance reviews is far from over and likely will continue for a while.

But that’s not what we want to talk about today: Instead, we want to focus on the ability of leaders, both aspiring and existing, to leverage the feedback received on their performance to become better leaders.

It’s easy to think, “Well, they just have to be open to feedback.” But that is easier said than done because our brains have a physiological response to critical feedback. When neuroscientists conduct brain scans of people receiving criticism, the resulting images look just like the scans of people exposed to physical threats. Their heart rates go up, their amygdala takes over and deactivates their prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that helps us learn by thinking rationally. When this happens, the natural response is to fight or flee, during which no learning is possible. People will try to both physically and emotionally escape the conversation. For example, they become defensive or go silent to try and expedite the end of the conversation.

So how do we help aspiring and existing leaders to overcome this natural threat response to critical feedback and become proactive and constant students of their behavior to become better leaders?

We believe this is best done by introducing these leaders to the concept of “personal mastery” and how to develop it to propel their leadership development journey.

Table of Contents

Helping leaders learn and grow through personal mastery

Personal mastery is a conceptual framework that Harvard professor Peter Senge developed to describe a set of fundamental principles and practices that a person needs in order to master learning and growing.
Personal mastery starts from the premise that no person will change their leadership behavior unless they choose to. No one can force anyone to change anything. You can give them feedback, send them to leadership training, make them read a book, but you cannot force them to adopt what they learn to change their behavior.
To do that, Professor Peter Senge outlined three fundamental principles and practices one needs to adopt. Below we’ll explore each of those principles and practices in-depth and how to leverage these principles in the design of your leadership development initiatives to help your leaders master them.

Step 1: Envision their desired future self

According to Senge, the first essential element of one’s ability to learn and grow is to have a clear image of the future that one desires and a powerful reason for why they want that future for themselves.

In the context of leadership development, this means that a leader won’t have any inclination to learn or any sense for how to change as a leader unless they have a clear image of the future leader they need or want to be and why they want to lead. Therefore, aspiring and existing leaders need to do the work of outlining how their future self will act as a leader, what they want to achieve as a leader, and why they want it.

For example, as part of the Essential Leadership Habits program, we focus on developing people’s personal mastery by guiding leaders through a series of exercises that help them develop a vivid picture of how they want their future selves to show up as leaders. One of these exercises helps them interview their future self as a highly successful leader ten years down the line. Through a series of questions, they are prompted to truly articulate what type of a leader they will be and what exactly they will have achieved. In that way, they self-identify with their future self and see clearly what they should learn or change today to move a step closer to that future self. 

Step 2: Commit to the truth about their current self

The second essential element for personal mastery is a commitment to the truth. In Senge’s words, this means one needs to have “a relentless willingness to root out the ways we deceive ourselves from seeing what truly is.”

This is essential. A person won’t choose to change until they are aware of and fully accept their current reality, warts and all, in detail. Only then can they see how it differs from their desired future.

In their book “Choosing Change,” Susan Goldsworthy and Walter McFarland describe this requirement for learning and self-development as “an ability to assess one’s abilities, aptitudes, and motives realistically, as well as an ability to recognize and acknowledge one’s feelings and reactions.”

Needless to say, while this principle is obviously key to helping leaders be open to and accept critical feedback, it does not come naturally to most of us.

For example, the inability to accept the truth about feedback is usually at the root of what we refer to as “legacy feedback.” You’re dealing with a case of legacy feedback when a leader has been told repeatedly that a certain habitual behavior of theirs is impacting them or others negatively, but they either fail to or refuse to address it. They might dismiss it because they believe “it’s not such a big deal,” or they’re not willing to accept this about themselves. Whatever the reason, it is a failure to commit to the truth. And eventually, it may be the very reason why they are not promoted further up the ladder.

Leadership development practitioners often rely on 360 feedback to try and “strong-arm” aspiring and existing leaders to face up to the truth about their behavior in hopes that they see the need for change. However, as we have explained above, that alone won’t get you anywhere unless those leaders have already honed their ability to “commit to the truth.”

So to help aspiring and existing leaders commit to the truth, you first need to help them develop a regular practice of deep self-reflection. Users of our leadership habit-building platform, for example, are constantly encouraged and prompted to deepen their self-knowledge and self-acceptance through a self-reflection process that is woven into our proprietary contextualization exercises. These self-reflections prompt them to become much more aware of their actual behavior and its impact. This, in turn, helps leaders to start judging themselves by their actual behavior rather than their intentions. And once a leader is accustomed to such honest self-reflection, they are able to also commit to the truth as presented to them through critical feedback from others.

Step 3: Manage the gap between their current self and their desired future self

The third essential element of Senge’s Personal Mastery framework is accepting and learning to leverage the tension that exists because of the gap between where a leader wants to be (personal vision) and their current reality.

Acceptance is critical because this gap often creates emotional tension when a person realizes the magnitude of the effort required to close the gap. It often causes feelings of anxiety, sadness, discouragement, hopelessness, and worry. Many find it too difficult to cope with this emotional tension, and thus, to escape it, abandon their efforts. So that is why the ability to accept the gap and overcome the self-defeating thoughts caused by the resulting emotional tension is key to a person’s ability to grow.

But just accepting the gap and the resulting emotional tension is not enough either. To change successfully, a person has to use the gap as a source of energy that challenges them to take the leap to learn and grow. They have to turn it into a source of creative tension.


‘[…] To engage in change, individuals must be willing to courageously leave their world of certainty for a place where there are many risks – a place where they are required to think in a new way.’

In other words, they need to be willing to step outside the comfort zone of existing habits and embrace the discomfort of learning to do things in new, even foreign ways.

Traditional leadership training usually fails to provide the support to help aspiring and existing leaders manage this gap. Leaders often leave a leadership workshop or training with big aspirations and ideas of how they should behave, but without a detailed plan to get from their current state to their desired one. So they arrive back in the office on a high but abandon their efforts after trying and failing to change their behavior to the desired state overnight. And for that, your organization just wasted all those training $$$.

Instead, what is required is proactive guidance and support to help leaders manage the gap, and here are our three key recommendations to consider implementing to help you do so for your leaders.

1. Help them get started: First, it is critical to help leaders get started on their behavior change by focusing on what they can do NOW. Help them take that first step to begin moving toward their desired future self. 

2. Help them overcome pitfalls: Second, personal transformation is a treacherous path filled with pitfalls and hurdles that hinder a leader’s efforts to establish lasting behavior change. So it is essential to enable and support leaders to anticipate, learn from and overcome these difficulties. We recommend teaching leaders to use a “Defensive Pessimism” exercise to help them anticipate and solve for possible fail points that could undermine their change efforts. A 2009 study by Stadler, Oettingen & Gollwitzer showed that people who used this methodology to sustain a new habit performed twice as well in successfully changing their behavior versus a control group who didn’t. This was true both in the short and long term. Such an exercise should ask leaders to answer some version of the following questions:

  1. What is your goal?
  2. What would be the most positive outcome today?
  3. What action will you take to reach this goal?
  4. What is the biggest obstacle?
  5. When and where is this obstacle most likely to occur?
  6. What can you do to prevent the obstacle?
  7. What specific thing will you do to get back to your goal when this obstacle happens?

Based on The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonical

3. Make the effort worthwhile: Third, you need to rethink how you encourage and incentivize leaders to resist the urge to abandon their efforts and instead put in the effort to keep moving towards their desired future self. Make it worthwhile for them.

Traditionally the only reward of leadership development has been an eventual promotion. However, this reward is usually too far off into the future and too uncertain to provide any real incentive right NOW when it’s most needed.

You need to consider new ways to encourage leaders along the way. For example, we recommend finding ways to measure, acknowledge and possibly even reward the amount of effort users put into their leadership development. Effort is an excellent indicator of who is willing “to do the work” to become a better leader. Those are the people you should be acknowledging and investing in – and in doing so, you may realize that they are not always the people you would identify as HIPO.

Also, consider how you can measure and reward leaders’ actual progress in their competence on various leadership capabilities. 

Further reading

Using neuroscience to make feedback work and feel better, by David Rock, Beth Jones, and Chris Weller

The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, by Peter Senge

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