How Leaders Can Ask for the Feedback No One Wants to Give Them

Most managers aren’t aware of what their employees really think about them.

At VitalSmarts we recently conducted an online study to understand if employees feel comfortable sharing critical feedback with their manager — especially when the feedback is about the manager’s behavior. Eighty percent of the 1,335 respondents said their boss has a significant weakness that everyone knows and discusses covertly with one another, but not directly with their manager.

It doesn’t have to be this way. If there’s something about your boss that frustrates you (and everyone around you), here’s how you can broach the subject in a thoughtful, productive way:

DON’T START WITH YOUR COMPLAINT. START WITH CONSEQUENCES: Help your boss understand not just what the problem is (they overschedule and then cancel meetings), but why he should care. If the boss has a reason to listen to uncomfortable feedback, he’s more likely to hear you.

OFFER WORKAROUNDS RATHER THAN TURNAROUNDS: It would be nice if your boss committed to a major personality change as a result of your conversation, but don’t bet on it. Even if she listens well and cares about your concerns, her behavioral patterns may be deeply ingrained. Propose a workaround that mitigates her weaknesses.

SUSPEND JUDGMENT: Find a way to replace your judgments with empathy. Conversations like these work only if the other person feels safe with you. And nothing destroys safety more reliably than a sense of derision. Examine your weaknesses. Examine your boss’s strengths. Be honest with yourself about the ways in which you are part of the problem.

The main thing leaders can do is make it safe to point out their weaknesses. This demands humility. Sharing this article with your team is a great way for managers to open this topic. Then use these suggestions to encourage your employees to open up:

MAKE IT NORMAL: Make employee-to-manager feedback a regular agenda item at team meetings. If you’ve made commitments to improve, take a moment to report on what you’ve done, and then ask team members to rate your effort on a scale of 1 to 10. They’ll struggle the first few times, but frequency will overcome timidity.

ADOPT A COACH: Ask a direct report who’s usually candid to be your coach. Meet regularly to request feedback. Make the coaching relationship public to demonstrate your sincerity about improving.

PRIME THE PUMP: Give examples of concerns your coach has raised to demonstrate that it’s safe to share tough feedback with you. You might say, “What can I do better? I’ve heard that I’m often inaccessible. What else would you like me to do better on?” If you can quote feedback you’ve received in a way that shows you aren’t threatened by it, you generate evidence for your team that other issues might be safe as well.

Our research shows that what people don’t talk out, they will act out in the form of resentment, turnover, apathy or deference. The path to results is paved with candid and direct communication. Leaders aren’t exempt from bad behavior — and they shouldn’t be exempt from feedback.

Copyright 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

Topics: Management

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