I'm a leader. How do I get honest feedback?

6 mins

How to ask for feedback as a leader

There’s a trend I’ve observed across almost every executive I’ve spent time with or spoken to - very few of them trust their direct reports to give them honest feedback.  It doesn’t mean they don’t think highly of their employees - on the contrary many of these leaders genuinely value and respect the people they’re leading, so much so that they fundamentally crave their feedback and hunger to improve themselves and learn either from confirmation that what they’re doing is good or if it’s not working at all.  

They’re perpetually anxious about the idea that they’re flying blind, that they’re completely unaware of how they’re really perceived. I have yet to run into a performant leader who isn’t emotionally vested in what their subordinates perceive about their leadership skills.  

Are there high performance leaders emotionally detached from how they’re perceived by the people they lead?  Absolutely.  Are those leaders fostering sustainable high performance work cultures?  I would bet they aren’t, but that’s another discussion for another time. 

Right now we’re talking about a really common but difficult circumstance - you’re a leader of people and you just don’t fundamentally trust the data around your own performance.  This might be because there simply isn’t any data or what data there is you choose to believe is incomplete, insufficient, or incorrect.  

So let’s start with what feedback you’re currently getting.  

If I ask you what your current perception of your own performance as a leader is, what evidence would you point me to in order to back up that claim? Would it be the things an employee said during their 1:1s with you?  Are these formal 1:1s? Are they recorded? How did you phrase the questions? What else had you talked about in the conversation? What was the tone of the exchange?  How interpersonally comfortable are you with the employee? How safe did they feel to speak their  mind? How would you measure that perception of safety? 

As you can see there’s already a dense set of things to consider when evaluating that data, and these were just a few things rattled off for the purposes of exploring the idea in a blog post - which is far from an exhaustive list.  There are so many factors and contextual facets to consider when trying to answer the question: “Am I getting reliable feedback as a leader?”.  

When we work with high performance leaders at Rhabit, we’re respectful of this complexity, but we try to start with some simple concepts that over time should help us create an environment that’s more likely to foster genuine feedback - knowing that nothing is perfect and there are exceptions to every rule. 

Be genuine and vulnerable in your request.

You can’t get a “yes” if you don’t ask.  Sounds like something out of a low quality sales training manual, but the basic concept is solid.  The first big step is to ask for feedback - but I’m of the opinion that, while a difficult step for many people, asking is actually the easiest part.  

How you actually ask for feedback and the nuance in that moment is the much more important factor in how you get good quality feedback from an employee, positive or negative.  

Consider taking on a tone that’s earnest and conversational, less of; “Hey I’d like to get your feedback on how I’m doing as your leader” and more of; “I’m really trying to improve as a manager, there are a few things I’m working on, where do you think I should focus?”  It’s so subtle, but this phrasing is where you’ve admitted you’re imperfect and you’re showing you’ve already emotionally accepted that you’re capable of improving; it’s letting your guard down, it’s being vulnerable, it’s being real.  It’s also pre-wired to help get you feedback that’s negative, which is the more difficult type of feedback to get from employees, believe it or not.  There are of course other ways to ask for feedback, use your own words - just ask yourself if you feel like it comes across as genuine and vulnerable. 

An example of how leaders can ask targeted, actionable feedback in Rhabit.

Create as much psychological safety as possible.

Creating psychological safety can be a bit more impractical for an individual leader.  Sometimes the best psychological safety comes from being anonymous - which means in terms of feedback for leaders, you’re going to have to use a system or tools in order to collect anonymous feedback.  

Even within these processes, users oftentimes don’t trust the system itself to be anonymous.  As the co-founder of a company that  builds awesome, anonymous feedback experiences, I know I can tell users that it’s completely anonymous until I’m blue in the face, I can show them our code first hand, and in some cases they use our systems for years without any evidence to the contrary and they’ll still have these sneaking suspicions that we’ve built some insidious process that was set as some contrived boobytrap to catch them giving negative feedback so we can digitally jump out from behind a door going “AH HA, GOT YOU!” and destroy their careers.  

See - it seems ridiculous just reading it, but it’s reality.  When there's a non-equivalent power dynamic involved and a perceived risk of consequence, fear overrides our rational thoughts - and you can see this play out over the entire landscape of our society as humans, not just at work with your boss.  

Again - another story for another time.  The point is you have to remove fear, explicitly: the fear of retaliation.  Creating anonymity through using tools like Rhabit is one route, another is simply acknowledging this and making it part of the discussion.  In your ask for feedback, talk about it.  Try to cast yourself as a leader into their shoes.  Talk about a time where you were afraid to give feedback to one of your leaders.  Explain what went through your head and why you were scared - openly acknowledge it and reassure them that you’re here to learn and listen, not react. 

Listen, don’t solve

When your employee responds to a request for feedback in person, your immediate response should be to thank them, genuinely.  You can’t get better if no one is willing to speak up about what they’re observing and feeling, and you should acknowledge that it can be tricky to talk about and that you really appreciate them making the effort.  Don’t jump into trying to solve the problem and I would strongly encourage you to resist the urge to justify, contextualize, or respond in any way that does anything other than validate their perspective.  Validate, validate, validate.  

Like perpetual teenagers with controversial t-shirts, we all want to be validated, it’s a fundamental human psychological need.  

Sure the new feedback you’ve just received might not be the most flattering thing anyones’ ever said to you, and it might be something you fundamentally and vehemently disagree with - but giving into that reactive urge will not make you into a better leader.  Eyes on the prize.  The priority here is to create a space where your employee feels like they can be open and honest.  We’ll deal with the reality of the actual feedback itself separately and you should come into the act of asking for feedback with this idea firmly planted in your head. 

Be gently relentless

If you screw this up the first time you try and take this approach to asking for feedback from your employees, congratulations, you’re a completely reasonable person and there’s still a great chance you’re actually a very high performing leader.  Feedback conversations about performance of any kind are emotionally charged and full of interpersonal landmines to navigate.  The important part is that you’re effortful in making a genuine attempt to connect with your employees and elicit feedback. 

The second most important part is that you do this again, and again, and again and again.  You have to make the seeking of feedback a perpetual zen-like process that you commit to for the rest of your career.  This is truly how you continuously develop and improve.  Performance isn’t static.  Tom Brady wasn’t the best quarterback in the league every year.  Micheal Jordan wasn’t the league MVP every season he played.  Even the best performers in their field fluctuated.

Even Michael Jordan agrees feedback is fun.

As for you, me, and the rest of us mere mortals in our fields, we’ll have bad days and good days, bad quarters and great ones, crappy years and amazing ones, and of course everything in between.  What’s important is that we commit to continuing to seek feedback, continuing to improve, and even if you’re like one of the high performing Rhabit users I spoke with in a coaching session with amazing scores and you’re wondering where do you go from here, continuously seeking feedback helps you be aware if something’s changing, if there’s a new opportunity for growth, or just helps you sleep easier at night knowing you’re not flying completely blind, unaware of what people really think. 

If you'd like to learn more about why feedback is essential for leaders, check out Rhabit Chief Science Officer, Alexander Schwall, Ph.D., on DDI's Leadership 480 podcast, or book a demo to learn how Rhabit makes leadership feedback fast, easy, and psychologically safe.