Not Getting Candid Feedback From Your Team When You Ask For It? Try This First.

As a leader, why is it your responsibility to go out and get feedback from your team?

In the workplace, most people haven’t been conditioned to candidly tell you, their boss, what you’re doing that’s causing strain on the team or project.  It also doesn’t necessarily occur to them to point out to you what you’re doing that’s helpful. Without this mirror, you can never be certain how your intentions, decisions, or actions are being perceived, which means you’ll never really know how to continue doing the great things you’re doing and change the behaviors that aren’t serving anyone. 

The collective norms, across all industries, are for people to conceal conflicts from you, talk about stuff they don’t like with one another behind closed doors, and either hold back from you or sugarcoat feedback that could be perceived as negative.  This kind of behavior is such a natural go-to for everyone, regardless of whether they’re generally happy or unhappy in their job. It also is a super quick way to stymie creativity and well-being for everyone.

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To counteract this powerful mental model and create an environment where people are able to share honest feedback, you must intentionally show your team that it is indeed safe to say the thing that needs to be said directly to you.  Advertising open-door policies or making promises to take feedback well generally won’t cut it; speaking up about hard things will continue to feel like a risk to them, even if you’ve established a friendly relationship, until you take the initiative to earn their trust.

How do you do that?  One way is to go out and get their feedback.  A lot. On everything. And listen for understanding.  Then do something with the feedback and be transparent about it.

What if you sense that people are still holding back or sugarcoating the truth?  How do you figure out what’s getting in the way when you’re pretty sure they won’t tell you?  

  • Pay attention to your instincts:  take in the situation, marry that with what you know about them and the non-verbals they’ve been broadcasting to you.  
  • If you think you’ve hit on something, make the necessary adjustments to the environment or relationship so they’ll truly take up the invitation you’re extending to be honest. 

If you’re stuck on why you’re getting crickets or placating sentiments when you genuinely ask for candid feedback from your team, sift through this list of common roadblocks that leave people afraid to share openly and see if any of them resonate.  It is by no means exhaustive, feel free to add your own…

  • They think someone else from the team must be giving you feedback
  • They believe it is your superior’s job to give you feedback and/or that doing so is above their pay grade
  • They think leaders are infallible or shouldn’t be questioned because they reached a position with power, so who are they to tell you anything?
  • They think you must know exactly how they feel, that it’s super obvious and therefore insulting to have to say aloud to you
  • They are afraid of what might happen to them; they suspect retaliation from you or from other members of the team (this could be based on their current observations or on experiences from their past)
  • They tried “managing up” before and got burned
  • They’re not certain that they are allowed to do something like this, it’s not clear that it’s really invited or expected
  • They don’t know what the process is, there is no established way to have a conversation like this
  • They don’t know how to express their feedback to you because they’ve never been in this situation before, it’s never been modeled for them
  • They’re afraid of hurting your feelings so they want to avoid the conversation
  • They’ve got something that’s bugging them, yet believe it’s easier to either wait it out and hope for the best, change their expectations of you or the situation, or manage their feelings around what they’re having trouble with (aka “deal with it”)
  • They think you and/or them are busy and don’t have time to really get into it
  • They think that sharing hard feedback creates a burden for you that they don’t want to feel responsible for
  • They don’t understand why you’re asking for feedback/what you’re after, which is making them feel suspicious or confused
  • They think being singled out is always a sign that they’re in trouble or have done something wrong
  • They don’t believe you’re really going to listen  – either because they don’t think you value their voice (judgment about you) or they don’t think their own voice has value (judgment about themselves)
  • They don’t see the point, they’re not sure what being honest will do
  • They don’t believe it’s going to change anything
  • They think your behavior (verbal, non-verbal, actions, etc.), conscious our unconscious, is intimidating or leads them to believe that their feedback will not be welcome
  • They have their own personal fears or obstacles to talking this way (e.g., social anxiety)

Some of this could be based in truth, some of this is based on stories they’re telling themselves.  Some of it you can’t know or control, some of it you can. If your team member is stuck on one or more of the roadblocks above, what actions or behaviors can you stop, continue, or start doing to show them that it is safe to give you honest feedback?

Do you recognize any of your own reasons for holding back or diluting hard feedback for the person/people on your team with more power than you? 

When you consistently are able to identify and remove the obstacles that are keeping people on your team from being honest with you, you can create and sustain a safe environment for people to share the feedback and ideas that keep you all engaged and moving forward together.

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