Survival of the fittest…at the office: There is one cup of morning coffee remaining in the pot. The sales manager spots it, like a tiger glares at its prey. Stopping at nothing to fill her cup with the last cup-of-joe, she lunges from her desk, pushing anyone who gets in her path until she has the pot in her grasp, pours out the last drip into her cup, and smiles in victory. This may be a likely scenario, but it’s not the one I’m talking about today.

When we talk about Darwin’s theory of natural selection, it’s applicable to many office and work situations, but what I’m focused on is the Darwinian idea of continuous adaptation.

“It is not the most intelligent of the species that survive the longest, it is the most adaptable.” — Charles Darwin

Yes, folks. Life is about adapting and changing to different environments, and even the most intelligent and best leaders and executives need to grasp this notion of accepting feedback and change for success. This requires information from external sources. With more active and open the feedback from others, there is more effective adaptation and change. However, few leaders receive truly open and honest feedback within their organizations, which brings me to the “CEO disease.”

CEO disease: not seeing the impact a leader’s mood has on the organization.

Symptom: when the leader has near-total ignorance about how his or her mood and actions appear to the organization.

If you’re noticing these symptoms within yourself, don’t worry; there is really good news! CEO disease is treatable and curable with awareness and some tips that I’m about to share with you.

First, let’s look at why this disease even manifests. Sometimes, people don’t share information due to fear of the director’s commanding or pacesetting style. They do not want to be punished as the messenger, and they would rather appear upbeat and optimistic. The result is a leader who has only partial information about what’s going on in his/her organization. The problem is compounded when the leader is a woman or from a minority group. Studies show that women and minorities get less useful feedback about their performance in any position compared to men.

Executives are often completely unaware of this dynamic. Many believe they are attuned to their environment because they ask questions and solicit feedback, but they might not be getting the accurate feedback or full truth. Top executives typically get the least reliable information about how they are doing. A meta-analysis of 177 separate studies that assessed 28,000 managers found that performance feedback becomes more inconsistent the higher the person’s position.

So, how should leaders seek out the truth? Start by looking at the process as getting the most amount of information to improve yourself, and in turn, your organization. Second, make it clear throughout your organization that honesty in feedback is imperative, and that even leaders need to adapt and make changes. People should feel comfortable and not fear persecution for honest feedback, even if it’s harsh. A study of 400 executives showed that the most effective leaders actively seek negative feedback. They let it be known that they are open to receive critiques either of their ideas or their leadership.

When soliciting feedback, it’s important to get a wide sample, just like a little research study. Ask people for feedback in all areas of your organization, and even family members, friends, etc. If you start to see a reoccurring criticism or weakness, chances are this is an accurate assessment, and something of which might need a little good ole’ fashioned adapting.

You can also convey some tips to others in how to provide feedback, especially if it is feedback that hurts! This three-step process in delivering effective feedback will help guide those of which you ask:

1. Capture the situation: You must be specific as to what happened, when it happened and the context. Refrain from judgmental statements. Be neutral, avoiding words that might trigger defensiveness. The idea here is to recall the event.

2. Describe the behavior: You must give information about what specific behavior or situation that needs to change. Avoid using adjectives that describe the person; use words that describe the person’s actions.

3. Describe the impact: In the final step, focus on the impact of the behavior. When you interpret and make a judgment about the behavior, you are less effective because the person can become defensive and argue with your interpretation. Share your personal point of view and ask the other person to view his/her behavior from your perspective.

In the workplace, silence is often chosen rather than risk. When people avoid giving honest feedback by keeping up comfort levels, they are actually doing a disservice to their leaders and organization. They are depriving their own leaders of valuable information so they can channel their inner Darwin and adapt.

Ask Yourself:

  1. What was the last time you asked for truthful and accurate feedback from members of your company/organization?
  2. Are you asking for feedback and accepting constructive criticism in a way that makes members of your company/organization feel comfortable enough to be honest?
  3. How can you improve the process of truthful feedback in your organization?
  4. What changes can you make to accept criticism and have the willingness to adapt?