How to Get Honest Feedback When You’re the Boss

Recently a manager, who I will call Robert, expressed his desire to know if he could do more to let the people in his department know how deeply he appreciated how hard they work and the quality of their work. He wondered if he could do more to let them know this. He also wondered, in general, how he came across as a leader.

Was he approachable?

Could he be doing more to keep morale high?

Were there things he was unknowingly doing that diminished his team’s motivation and dampened their spirits?

If you wonder about these sorts of things and how you come across as a leader, if you wonder what specifically you do that is helpful and what you do that is not so helpful, this article will help you begin the process of finding out.

In future articles, I’ll focus on how to broach harder areas of feedback in a way that makes it more likely you will get honest, actionable feedback. For now, though, let’s talk about how to get started.

1. Ask a feedforward question — “Feedforward” is a term I first heard from Marshal Goldsmith, author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There and other books. Feedforward refers to input that does not critique past behavior, but instead speaks to new behavior in the future.

Here’s an example of what asking a feedforward question would sound like: “What could I be doing more of in the future, or start doing, that would make your life easier?” or “What could I be doing more of in the future, or start doing, that would be most helpful?”

Because feedforward input doesn’t involve directly critiquing someone’s past behavior, it’s much less likely to trigger shame — and therefore defensiveness and cognitive shutdown in the receiver, in this case, you. It is also MUCH easier for the other person to give, especially if they are being asked by someone with more position power for feedback.

2. Ask for input on a low risk, specific area — For Robert, this would be how to show appreciation in ways that were most meaningful to the people in his department. This would be a great place to start his feedback inquiry because it’s both specific and it is about how to do more of a positive thing, rather than remedy a negative behavior. This makes it much easier for his team to give him feedback. It would also be a more comfortable place for him to start this new feedback-soliciting behavior, because it’s about something that he is doing that is positive.

So for instance, this might sound like, “As hopefully you know from previous things I’ve said, I so appreciate the great job you all do in what is an incredibly demanding job. I wonder sometimes if there are ways I could be letting you know that on a more regular basis that doesn’t sound like I’m just repeating the same thing over and over, so here’s my question for you: What could I do to remind you how much I sincerely appreciate the great work that you do; what ways of expressing appreciation would be most meaningful to you?”

3. Ask about something you suspect you should do differently — This is a baby step toward getting more candid feedback. It calls for more courage and vulnerability from both parties than the previous two, but not as much as simply asking, “Can you give me feedback on how I am as a leader?” or “What do I do that you wish I would change?”

By you mentioning the specific area or behavior you would like feedback on, you are doing what I call “Mentioning the Unmentionable.” You are bringing up an issue that the other person is unlikely to bring up because of the power differential. However, if you bring it up, you signal that it is a topic that can be discussed. Here’s an example: “I’ve been thinking about how I run meetings and how I don’t think I am nearly as effective as I could be. I’d love to get your thoughts on what I do that is helpful and what I do that is counterproductive, and any other suggestions you have about how I can run more effective meetings.”

Reducing the initial awkwardness of asking

I’ve found over the years that most managers are understandably uncomfortable with asking for feedback, in part because they’ve never done it before. Will people think it’s weird that they are suddenly asking for feedback? Will their people be wondering, “Where is THIS coming from?”

One simple way to alleviate this potential awkwardness is to frame it as coming from a recent seminar you attended or article you read. So for instance, when I am facilitating management development seminars, I suggest participants have a “I went to a management seminar this week” conversation with their team and let them know what they are going to be working on. They can also use this announcement to let their team know that they will be asking them for feedback (or better still, feedforward) in their upcoming individual meetings.

You can use this article as your ice breaker, by saying something like, “I was reading this article about getting feedback from your team on your management style and what you do that’s really helpful and what you could do differently that would be more helpful. It got me to thinking that would be a good thing for me to do, so with that in mind…”

Does this make you feel queasy?

I have also found over the years that many managers fear asking for feedback because it feels too vulnerable to them, too one-down. They feel they will lose some kind of control or diminish their power by being vulnerable enough to ask for feedback.

Think for a moment how YOU would feel if YOUR boss was humble enough and interested enough in how they affected you to ask for feedback. Would you not have tremendous respect for them? Would you not care even more about pleasing them because it’s clear they care about you and their impact on you?

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If you want a great example of how an “old school” manager got over her fear of losing control by being vulnerable — and what happened when she did — check out my article ”The Ultimate Workplace Power? When Managers Decide To Apologize.”

What have you done that works?

Your fellow leaders would benefit by hearing from you about what you’ve done to solicit feedback that has worked, please post your comments below.

Or, if you have questions, please post them in the comments section.

Your questions will help shape future articles on how to solicit candid feedback around more difficult issues.

And now, how about getting ready for your first feedback conversation?