Leaders at every level need candid feedback about their performance to improve. Feedback can illuminate blind spots about behavior that we just can’t see without input from others. However, providing feedback to senior leaders can be intimidating. If the COO waltzes into a subordinate’s office to ask, “So, how am I doing as a leader?”, the likelihood he or she will receive honest, useful feedback is low. Fears of offending the boss or making a fatal misstep loom large for many staff, and they worry about risking their raise, bonus or job by speaking too freely.
The nature of feedback is to let us know how near to or far from our target we are. This data is an essential ingredient in strategic, real-time leadership development. Anonymous standard surveys, such as 360 reviews, provide some data, but they don’t contain enough timely, specific or contextual detail.
Without accurate knowledge, senior leaders may adjust in the wrong direction, expend effort in the wrong places, and create even more distance between their intention and their actual impact on others. When a senior leader wants genuine feedback on their leadership skills, try these methods to help them get the real-time data they need to improve.
1. Commit to creating an environment of open dialogue.
In his book “Turn the Ship Around,” U.S. Navy Captain L. David Marquet unwittingly gave his submarine crew an impossible command during important submarine tactical training. Because the crew’s previous leaders hadn’t allowed them to question their superiors, the crew knew it was a mistake but remained silent instead of informing the captain of his error. Luckily, disaster was averted, but the situation prompted Marquet to ask, “What happens in a top-down culture when the leader is wrong? Everyone goes over the cliff.”
Creating open dialogue may challenge aspects of your organization’s culture, but is a critical factor in learning what is needed. A culture of open dialogue has benefits beyond quality feedback. Younger staff, including millennials, appreciate an environment that encourages them to generate and share ideas. Open communication builds skills in having collaborative conversations about change and demonstrates respect for diverse thinking.
What would help staff trust that they will not be punished for their honesty? To cultivate an environment of open dialogue, start by acknowledging the perceived risk the provider of feedback is taking. Highlight the mutual benefit of improvement likely to arise from the discussion. Appreciate that you are receiving feedback, regardless of how you feel about the content.
2. Be specific when requesting feedback.
“How am I doing as a leader?” is too sweeping and leaves staff scrambling to say something that feels psychologically safe enough to share on the spot. Instead, give a specific aspect to focus on and explain why you’re asking for feedback. Consider referring to a specific strategic objective, customer request or mutual project.
Here’s an example: “I’m working on becoming a more engaging speaker so I can get more speaking engagements and increase awareness of what our organization does. Based on my speeches in the past few months, can you think of a couple ways I could improve?”
In some situations, critiques of the past might leave some people feeling uncomfortable, whereas asking about future opportunities leaves space open for idea exploration.
3. Acknowledge and mitigate concerns.
If you suspect a staff member would be nervous about giving feedback, consider meeting in an informal, enjoyable location such as a coffee shop or lunch spot. You may wish to give the staff member time to develop their responses by asking your questions in advance and then discussing their answers at a meeting. Many people appreciate having time to be thoughtful instead of being expected to answer on the spot.
4. Radiate a sincere desire to learn and improve.
Consider how you’ll demonstrate that you want to hear what’s on your staff’s mind. One executive related her approach: “My eyebrows are up, my pen is poised and my mouth is closed. I don’t shut down the conversation by defending myself.” In the Harvard Business Review, Peter Bregman recommends taking notes because “a little silence communicates that you’re taking feedback seriously and it gives those offering it time to think about what else they might say. Often they’ll volunteer a second — and very important — thought while waiting for you to finish writing.”
Prepare to express sincere gratitude and consideration. Staff members need to know that you heard what they had to say and are taking it seriously and that you understand and appreciate the risk they’ve taken in being honest with you. Some helpful phrases are “I appreciate your willingness to give me that idea,” “I’m going to take that into consideration,” and “I’ll put some time and thought into that to see where it leads.” Expressions of gratitude set the stage for establishing a culture that truly values feedback to leaders at all levels.
5. Follow up with action.
One of the best ways to receive future feedback is to act on what you have received thus far. Feedback is most effective when it gives guidance for improvement, and how an executive decides to respond to the suggestion determines its impact. Bolster staff’s confidence that feedback is a worthy time investment by showing that you have listened to ideas and are considering changes as a result.
For instance, if the feedback points to a lack of information or communication flow, spend time figuring out how to put accurate information in more people’s hands. If the feedback points to professional development, share how you are working on improving and what plans you have for growing. If you receive a specific suggestion about effective speaking, such as avoiding verbal crutches, enlist the person who gave you feedback to help track progress, and celebrate the success of measurable and sustained improvement.
Maximizing the benefit of feedback begins with being open and ends with using what you have learned to become a better leader. Using these methods, everyone wins.