The higher up in the organization you get, the less likely you'll receive constructive feedback on your ideas, performance, or strategy. No one wants to offend the boss, right? But without input, your development will suffer, you may become isolated, and you're likely to miss out on hearing some great ideas. So, what can you do to get people to tell you what you may not want to hear?
What the Experts Say
Most people have good reasons for keeping their opinions from higher ups. "People with formal power can affect our fate in many ways — they can withhold critical resources, they can give us negative evaluations and hold us back from promotions, and they can even potentially fire us or have us fired," says James Detert, associate professor at the Cornell Johnson Graduate School of Management and author of the Harvard Business Review articles "Debunking Four Myths About Employee Silence" and "Why Employees Are Afraid to Speak". The more senior you become, the more likely you are to trigger this fear. "The major reason people don't give the boss feedback is they're worried that the boss will retaliate because they know that most of us have trouble accepting negative feedback," says Linda Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and coauthor of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader. While you may be tempted to enjoy this deference, the silence will not help you, your organization or your career.
Acknowledge the fear
As the boss, you have to set the stage so people feel comfortable, says Hill. You need to break through their fear. Detert suggests being explicit. Tell them that you know everyone makes mistakes, including you, and that they should call out those errors without feeling embarrassed or threatened. Explain that you need their feedback to learn.
At the same time, you should recognize how hard it might be to hear this tough feedback. "It's human to feel bad when people criticize and no matter how senior you become, you're still human," Hill says. Still, you can't let that anxiety hold you back.
Ask for it, constantly
Ask for feedback on a regular basis, not just at review time. "You need to be the one who is actively collecting and soliciting information all the time," says Hill. You can say something like, "I know that these are the goals that we set together. What can I do to help you achieve those goals?" You shouldn't assume your team members will be upfront the first time you ask. "You have to do it for awhile and then the information will flow and you can ask more pointed questions," says Hill.
In the same way that you want to give concrete examples when giving feedback, you should also request them when you are receiving it. When someone tells you, "You run our team meetings really well," or "You don't delegate enough," follow up by asking for an example. This allows you to better understand the feedback and ensures that what you're hearing is true. "I tend to think the more people can back up their assertions and input with concrete examples or numbers, the more it's probably honest," says Detert.
Read between the lines
Of course, you may not get honest feedback all the time. But it's your job to figure out what problems people are trying to help you identify. You may need to triangulate between several points of feedback. Hill suggests, for example, that you ask five or six people the same question. "You're trying to collect the data so you can you go back and put the story together about the impact you're having," she says. Detert agrees about casting a wide net: "If nothing else, it'll help you figure out whether there are gaps and inconsistencies in what you're hearing, and what you might need to do about it."
Act on it
If someone is brave enough to give you input, recognize it. "People hate feeling that speaking up was a complete waste of time," says Detert. "You have to actually thank people for doing it, and other employees have to see those people get promoted rather than fired or shunned." Show everyone that you receive feedback well and can change your behavior as a result. These examples will turn into "urban legends," encouraging more people to give you constructive feedback.
Find a few trusted people
If you suspect that most people in your organization aren't going to be honest with you, or feedback is just not part of the culture, Detert suggests finding one or two people you trust to tell you the truth. It could be someone on your team, a peer, a mentor, or a coach. Whoever it is, be sure he or she has access to the right data and is able to talk to the people who interact with you on a daily basis. Don't just turn to confidants who will tell you what you want to hear.
It can be hard to get people to open up. One way to get around this is by doing a 360-degree review or using a coach to gather feedback anonymously. But then you should respond to it. According to Hill, if you talk openly about what you've learned it sends a signal that you're open to hearing criticism. "Once you've done that, people are more comfortable telling you to your face," says Hill. She shares the example of Vineet Nayar, the CEO of HCL Technologies, who posted his own 360-degree feedback on the company intranet and encouraged his senior team to do the same. It was a bold move, says Hill, but the result was that people felt much more comfortable giving Nayar feedback directly when they knew he took it seriously.
Principles to Remember
- Always say thank you and explain how you'll respond to the feedback you've heard
- Turn to a few people you trust who can tell you what others really think about your performance and ideas
- If you think people won't open up, start by gathering feedback anonymously to show them you're receptive
- Wait for review time to ask for input
- Assume you are going to get 100% honest feedback, especially at first
- Rely on one source for feedback — triangulate between several points of data
Case Study #1: Find a champion on your staff
Michael Green, the founder and executive director of the Center for Environmental Health, knows that it's tough for his team — 23 full-time employees and another handful of interns — to give him candid feedback. "When I founded the organization 16 years ago, one of my board members told me that I needed to be aware of my privilege and position of power," he says. Since he knows that people take a risk whenever they do give him input, he is sure to respond appropriately. "Whenever possible, you have to do what they ask to prove that you're listening. You need to develop relationships with people so they know they can tell you the truth without getting anyone in trouble," he says.
He also takes every opportunity he can to tell his staff that he's open to feedback. In meetings, he regularly says, "If there's anyone who wants to talk with me about this offline, please do. You can also talk to Charlie about it." Michael relies on Charlie, the organization's associate director, to be candid with him and to serve as a sounding board for the staff. Michael knows that wouldn't work if employees perceived Charlie as "Michael's guy." Rather, the team sees him as an impartial leader who will give Michael their feedback, without naming names, and keep things to himself when it's appropriate. "They trust his judgment to know what to tell me. And I'm sure he doesn't tell me everything," Michael says.
He also says he encourages feedback by giving it. "There's nobody you can't find praise for, even an underperformer," he says. "When they get regular, positive feedback they feel like they are part of a team and they are willing to tell you more."
Case Study #2: Make feedback fun
Sunita Malhotra, the managing director of People Insights, a coaching and consulting firm based in Belgium, has earned the nickname "feedback monster." Thanks to a formative experience in her teens (a friend told her that her tone of voice was too sharp), she now goes out of her way to solicit opinions from colleagues and subordinates. "If someone doesn't tell you, you don't know," she explains. At first, she thought it would be easy. "I just thought people would walk into my office and tell me what they thought," she says. But she discovered that, as a boss seeking feedback, she needed to be quite deliberate. As head of human resources for the European division of a global company overseeing 7,500 people, she made three promises to anyone who joined her team:
- She would always give positive and constructive feedback.
- She always wanted feedback.
- They would all try to have fun.
Sunita also solicited feedback in all her meetings. Whether they were one-on-ones with her 20 direct reports, larger staff meetings, or sessions with internal customers, there were always five minutes set aside on the agenda to gather input. "My aim was to create a feedback culture," she says. And it worked. Eventually, people stopped waiting for the designated time in the meetings and gave her input in real time. For those who were more hesitant, she used humor. Each person on her team was given a set of green, yellow and red cards — to reward or penalize behavior as a referee would in a soccer match. For example, if someone was listening well in a team meeting, a colleague lays a green card on the table and explains why. Similarly, if someone interrupted a co-worker, a third person would call out the behavior with a red card. Sunita made it clear she expected to get as many yellow and red cards as she deserved.
Amy Gallo is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review.
Thanks to Amy Gallo / Blogs HBR / Harvard Business School Publishing
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