If you are a boss, your employees are probably hesitant about providing you with feedback—real, helpful feedback. As a leader, you may believe that you’re approachable to your employees, but research shows that you’re scarier than you think.
I once received this exact feedback during a team member’s exit interview: “You’re scary.”
I was in disbelief when I heard this, because it is in no way how I see myself. Sadly, at that point, it was too late for me to adjust my communication style with this individual.
So while you may see yourself as friendly, well-intentioned, and egalitarian, the simple fact that you’re the boss, or the head of marketing, or the owner of the business, confers higher status and authority on you. This naturally creates a social stratification, and others will be more likely to worry about what you think of them and try to avoid upsetting you. And now, with increased fears around job security in the wake of COVID-19, employees are even more hesitant to provide constructive upward feedback.
This creates a problem for all leaders. If you don’t understand your impact on others, your performance can suffer. Without input that helps you see yourself as others do, you won’t be able to make adjustments in your behavior that enable you to be more effective and successful. Furthermore, the higher up in an organization that you sit, the harder it is to get the unvarnished truth.
As an executive coach, I frequently collect feedback for my clients so they can accurately understand how they are perceived by their key stakeholders. By assuring confidentiality, employees and coworkers speak more freely and my clients obtain high-quality feedback. Hiring a coach or participating in a 360 is not always an option, though, or may occur only occasionally.
The good news is that there are things you can do to solicit honest, useful, and timely feedback from your team. Here are four strategies to help you collect important impressions on your performance.
Call yourself out first
Most of us don’t like giving negative feedback, regardless of professional relationships. It’s no wonder, given the obstacles to providing constructive feedback. We don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, we don’t want our relationships to get messy, we worry about the possibility of an emotional outburst, and, if we’re communicating with our boss, we worry about the possible career repercussions of speaking with candor.
One way to circumvent these barriers is to acknowledge what you already know. For instance, one leader I coached had received feedback that his communications and expectations weren’t clear. To address the issues resulting from this lack of clarity, he would periodically say to his team, “I know I’m sometimes not as clear as I need to be. Where would it be helpful for me to provide more information or explanation?”
By raising the negative feedback yourself, you make it easier for people to tell you what they need from you. You’re also able to move past the generic label—”a poor communicator”—to get the specifics you need to make the feedback useful.
Ask for ideas, not judgments
Rather than asking your team for feedback on your past performance, ask them for ideas on how you could be more effective in the future. This takes them out of the uncomfortable position of judging you and into the role of brainstorming partner for a better future.
Be specific and direct in your ask. In my case, for example, if I’d had the chance I could have asked: “What are one or two things I can do to be more approachable?” You can use this method for any behavior you want to improve and dramatically increase the number of ideas available to you.
By demonstrating a growth orientation, you may be able to parlay the dialogue to uncover other growth areas. Just ask: “What else should I do to be more effective?”
Cultivate an air of calm
Unless people feel a sense of safety and trust, they will keep things to themselves rather than risk telling you. One aspect of this trust is the belief that you handle difficult news and problems with poise.
When your employees offer you feedback or suggestions for improvement, simply listen to what they have to say. You may feel defensive or think their ideas or feedback don’t have merit, but this isn’t the time to rebut or critique. Doing so will only shut them down in the future. Let them share their perspectives and ideas, whether you agree with their statements or plan to implement their ideas or not. Ask clarifying questions if you don’t fully understand. And say thank you.
More broadly, when you hear difficult news or face other challenges at work, remain calm. When you stay solution-focused and unflappable in the face of difficulties, your team will feel less concerned about speaking candidly with you. However, if you react emotionally when things don’t go your way at work, your team will automatically second-guess providing you with constructive feedback in the future.
Incentivize future feedback
At team meetings, share feedback that you have received from your staff. With the individual’s permission, share what specific things you have learned and how you may have benefitted from the information. Follow up by acknowledging how difficult it can be to provide upward feedback and thank the person for mustering up the courage. By sharing this story and the positive impact of the feedback, you recognize the courage it takes to speak candidly, but at the same time, you encourage others to do the same.
Without candid feedback from your team, your chances of success are greatly diminished. By staying calm, acknowledging your areas of needed improvement, and welcoming continued employee feedback, you open up channels to communication and improve your leadership.
Over time, you will create the conditions for a feedback-rich culture that benefits everyone on your team.
Dina Smith is the owner of Cognitas, a leadership development firm in the San Francisco Bay Area.