Frank, a marketing director for an international distributor, was having dinner with Victor, his vice-president boss, on a trip together to Germany. Frank and Victor were visiting from the U.S. for a meeting the next day with Victor’s international marketing team. Frank used this private opportunity to give Victor some feedback.
“You’re unreliable in our meetings with the team,” Frank told Victor at one point. Frank gave specifics. “I often see you focused on your laptop during conversations, sometimes for long stretches, and several times you’ve up and left, only to return sometime later as if nothing happened. This team needs your leadership.”
The timing of this feedback couldn’t have been better. Tomorrow’s meeting was intended to address the misalignment among the directors of Victor’s team. Frank wanted Victor to be fully engaged.
The feedback worked. At the meeting, according to Frank’s retelling, Victor actively facilitated the discussion and process. He white-boarded the team’s concerns and ideas. He asked a lot of questions – tough questions in fact. He summarized what he heard his team saying. After two hours, the team had a clear statement of its agreements on how they would work together going forward.
If we want to learn how to do anything better, we need feedback. In my mind, Victor is a very lucky leader. He has a direct report who is candid and courageous enough to give him feedback. And Victor himself has built a relationship where Frank can feel safe to do so.
As with all other skills, feedback is necessary for you to know what’s working and what isn’t working in your leadership. Without feedback, you can’t fully know the impact you’re having on those you lead. You can’t know whether your actions, behaviors and “leadership style” are hitting the mark and resonating with your people, so they’re positioned to give you their best.
And what’s scariest of all, without feedback, your tendency will be to think everything is just fine.
But you might be fooling yourself.
Most Followers Won’t Naturally Give Feedback
I call this “The Follower’s Fear.” It’s a fear I’m sure you’ve experienced in relation to bosses and leaders you’ve had. It’s common. It’s human.
Think about it. How likely are you to give unsolicited critical feedback to your boss regarding how she leads? Hopefully, the two of you have a candid relationship like Frank and Victor. Most of us don’t.
At issue is a concept in organizational research called psychological safety. As Edmondson and Lei write, “Psychological safety describes people’s perceptions of the consequences of taking interpersonal risks in a particular context such as a workplace.”
Just as it’s risky to spit into the wind or tug on Superman’s cape (to quote an old Jim Croce song), it’s risky for employees to give critical feedback to their bosses. If they do, they wonder in the back of their minds: Will I get punished? Will my boss retaliate? Will it hurt our relationship? Will it hurt my chances for promotions, raises, new projects or responsibilities?
Uninvited, giving the boss feedback is a risk most employees are not willing to take. It doesn’t feel “safe.” The need for self-preservation gets in the way.
Yet I firmly believe that your people have plenty of feedback to offer about the effectiveness of your leadership. After all, they’re the recipients of it.
Most of them are simply not willing to tell you.
“What’s in It for Me?”
Good question. Why would you want to ask your team for feedback on your leadership? I’ll give you four reasons.
- First, I’m assuming you want to be a more effective leader (otherwise you probably wouldn’t be reading this post). As I mentioned earlier, the only way to learn how to be better at any skill requires feedback. It’s about learning.
Feedback is gap analysis. It gives us information about the existing links and possible gaps between actual performance and desired performance. With that information, we’re armed to change things and get better. Feedback aimed specifically at your leadership tells you how well your leadership intentions align with your real-time leadership impact.
- Second, feedback helps you build self-awareness, which is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence. As Eric Barker puts it, self-awareness further supports your learning because, without self-awareness, “you’ve got no way to evaluate what skills you have, what you lack and what you need to work on. You’re flying blind.”
- Third, when you ask for feedback, you get better feedback – and that’s easier for you to hear. Unsolicited feedback often comes at you only when people are frustrated enough to speak up. That kind of feedback is likely to raise your own defenses.
As Joseph Folkman points out, “When a person sincerely asks another for feedback, most of the time the person providing the feedback will try very hard to give an honest and productive perspective.”
- Fourth, the very best leaders ask for feedback from their teams. Folkman’s research involving more than 51,000 leaders shows that leaders who are adept at asking for feedback are rated at the top 86th percentile in leadership effectiveness.
If You Don’t Ask, You Don’t Get
Since most followers won’t volunteer feedback to you, the boss, you need to ask. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? But I offer a couple of caveats to consider. These will help you be successful when you ask.
Remember the concept discussed earlier – psychological safety. When you ask for feedback, your people will naturally wonder if their honest feedback might come back to bite them: “Is it safe for me to do this?” So, you must make it safe for them going in.
The second caveat has to do with trust. Trust and psychological safety are inextricably linked. Your people will be honest with you to the extent that they trust you. But this is also true: The ACT of asking for and receiving feedback on your leadership can be a trust builder or a trust destroyer. It’s all in how you approach and handle the feedback.
So if you’re serious about getting honest feedback on your leadership, here are six tips to help you do it in a climate of safety and trust.
- Let them know in advance you’ll be asking for feedback – and why.
This step might sound silly or redundant, but hear me out. When we change behaviors or try new approaches in relation to other people, those people often see the change as odd or mysterious. They may even get suspicious, as if there’s ulterior motive behind the behavior change.
This phenomenon comes from something psychologists call cognitive trust. The most potent motivator of cognitive trust comes when we see others’ behaviors as highly consistent. When that perception gets derailed by a new behavior, it can leave us wondering.
Here’s the antidote: Before you start asking for feedback, prime your people for the change by letting them know you’ll be asking…and why. Tell them it’s to help you be a better, more effective leader for them. They, in turn, will be more likely to trust that your intentions are good.
- Start with an easy-to-answer feedback question.
Since your people may feel hesitant or uneasy about giving the boss feedback (Is it safe? Can I trust this process?), lighten their load. One way to minimize their resistance is to ask a question that’s easier for your people to answer. Begin with this:
“What do I do as a leader that you like and want me to keep doing?”
Assuming they answer honestly, you’ll get helpful feedback because it will validate what you’re doing that works.
Later, as your people become more comfortable giving you feedback, turn to critical questions:
“What do I do that you don’t like and want me to stop doing?”
“What am I not doing that you want me to start doing?”
- No “nasty” responses on your part – of any kind.
It may sound cliché, but I firmly believe it: Feedback is a gift. We often don’t get feedback from important people in our lives because of the various reasons we’ve discussed. When you get feedback, treat it as a gift.
That means, you can’t punish or get defensive or debate. If you ask, you also need to remain open. You may not like everything you hear – hell, if your people are completely honest with you, some of it might sting pretty good. But if you punish or get defensive or debate, your people won’t trust you enough to give feedback again. You’ve made it painful for them, and your actions send a signal that you don’t really want it. You’ll not only fail to get feedback in the future, you’ll damage their trust and your relationship. Perhaps beyond repair.
In response to feedback, you only need two words: Thank you. Then…
- Ask questions and listen to the answers.
Peel the onion, as it were, to get to the root issues or concerns of your people. Seek to understand. If a direct report is telling you something he or she doesn’t like, ask: “What can I do instead?” Don’t assume you know. The answer to this question also gives you a replacement behavior for more functional outcomes and impact.
As for listening, listen deeply. Listen for the key message under the feedback and the responses to your questions. Especially listen for the positive intent behind what your direct report is telling you; their feedback is simply a way for them to ask for something that will help them be more effective and successful.
- Act upon what you learn.
If you don’t take noticeable action based on feedback you receive, you might as well not ask at all. As the Chinese proverb goes, “Talk does not cook rice.”
After feedback discussions, take what you learn and put it into practice. Demonstrate that you’ve heard what you can do to be a better leader by doing it! Remember: Your people are watching you all the time. They notice whether you’re hearing them by nature of your actions. And they’ll notice that you’re not hearing them if you don’t follow through.
- Keep asking. (Think six months.)
An HR colleague of mine likes to say, “When you start asking for feedback on your leadership, do it for six months. By then you should start getting some answers.”
Her timeframe, of course, is arbitrary. Her point is that you will likely need to ask for feedback routinely and consistently over time before your people will take the risk.
Your team members may also not have any feedback for you when you first start asking. By asking routinely, you condition and prime their awareness. They start paying attention to what you do as a leader because you’re asking them to, expecting them to. Eventually they’ll find something to share.
If, after all of this, you’re still not getting feedback from your team, there may be a serious trust issue. In a future post, I’ll tell you about a simple and effective way to get feedback on your leadership.
Until then, start using the tips above to ask for feedback to learn what you do as a leader that’s working and that’s not. When you put what you learn from them into practice, you’ll likely find that leadership becomes a bit easier – because you’re getting better at your craft.