“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.”
– Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft Corporation.
“I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re
constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you
could be doing it better.”
– Elon Musk, co-founder and CEO of Tesla Inc.
Okay, assuming that we all agree that it is a good thing to receive feedback on our performance in order that we can improve, perhaps we can also all agree that getting people to give us their honest opinions, particularly if we are in leadership positions, is anything but easy!
If you head up a team and others therefore rely on your good opinion for their professional and financial futures, pointing out your shortcomings is likely to be considered by most of your direct reports to be way too risky.
But, if you would like to grow in your role and want feedback to be part of the organisation’s culture, then you need to explicitly ask for it in such a way that people feel comfortable giving it AND receive it in such a way that shows you understand it and value them.
Typically, this important transfer of information goes wrong in several ways:
- Firstly, only a few members of your team will feel able – brave enough – to give you any kind of feedback when asked. You probably know who will respond before even asking the question and, while their input is clearly good to have, you really want to hear from a more diverse group than the ‘usual suspects’.
- Secondly, if you do manage to get a good number of your team to voice their opinions, you are likely to be left with a ‘mixed bag’ of concerns and suggestions – often confusingly contradictory – without really knowing which elements to give most credence to and what to prioritise.
In our experience, the best way to get a really clear assessment of your skills and flaws from those that work for you, is to ask your team to work collectively on their response.
By sitting together to discuss their shared and individual experiences of you as their boss, they’ll almost certainly focus on the key aspects they appreciate as well as the key areas for improvement; they won’t feel as awkward – or exposed – when delivering the group’s reflections and they’ll be more honest.
So, what was your gut reaction to that idea?
Did you recoil a bit at the thought of them all talking about you? Do you think it might make you look weak? That it might expose your failings?
– Try reframing it. Do you look vulnerable, or do you actually look strong? Not only are you interested in, and able to take, feedback but you are comfortable with your staff talking about you behind closed doors. That’s pretty inspiring.
Do you feel a bit squeamish at asking others to take time out of their busy days to focus on you? To do something for you?
– Again, turn it around. Is improving your management style and approach really about you, or is it actually for them? So that you can become a better boss? You can go right ahead and say it that way if it helps you get the ball rolling. It’s true after all.
So, if we’ve convinced you on the approach, here are our tips on how to make it a success:
- Ask your team for clear outputs. For example:
- What one thing do they most appreciate and want you to continue to do, with examples of where and when it (your activity, attitude, approach) has been helpful. Explain what makes it so helpful and the impact it has on the team.
- What one thing do they most want you to pay more attention to, with examples of how it (the activity, attitude, approach) has been challenging. Explain what makes it so difficult and the impact it has on the team. What could you do differently and how?
- Sit together with your team to discuss their points:
- Listen, listen, listen.
- Sit forward on your chair. Uncross your arms. Engage with what you are hearing.
- Resist the urge to contradict or explain your actions, attitude or approach.
- Try to understand better what exactly it is that they are trying to tell you.
- Ask a lot of questions.
- If you feel that you are in fact already doing what they seem to be asking of you, then probe a little deeper to find out why they have a different impression. You might say: “I feel that I am already doing x,y and z. What is your perception? What is still missing? What could I do differently?”
- Then summarise what you think they are saying. If your summary is spot on, they’ll tell you and feel you have understood them; if not, they’ll tell you and in that case you need to go back to step 1 and listen, listen, listen, which will also make them feel that you understand them.
- Reflect on some next steps. Ask ‘would it help if I xxx?’ Ask them for their suggestions. Agree on some specific action points together.
- Commit to asking for their thoughts again in six months/a year.
None of this is easy. It will require you to listen, be humble and self-reflective and to be open to hearing criticism. But it will provide real insights that you can use to develop your talents and address your weaknesses, and importantly it will build trust with your team.
“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain
in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”
– Winston Churchill, British prime minister