How do I encourage my team to give me feedback?

As managers, we must encourage feedback in two directions. It’s part of our job to ask for feedback from our direct reports. And even though we think we know our strengths and weaknesses; we are not likely to improve without knowing the experience of those who report to us. What other way could we know what we should stop doing?

I’ve found colleagues can be reluctant to advise on what I need to sustain or improve. These are five common obstacles leaders when asking for helpful feedback from their direct reports.

1. Anxiety around whether you want to hear it.

Workers expect to be given feedback from their boss. But unless they’re overtly encouraged to offer feedback to their supervisor, they won’t know that’s possible.

What to do: Inform them that you want and expect their advice on your management. One approach is to explain that your self-improvement is a professional and personal promise you’ve made to yourself. Then ask them to help you meet it. That could sound like, “Would you help me keep the promise I’ve made to myself?” As a result, your employee will see their input as helping you fulfill a commitment you made to yourself.

2. Worrying about “doing it right.”

Learning how to give effective feedback is a skill. So if your worker doesn’t know how to do it well then they may resist doing it at all.

What to do: Inform your direct report that feedback is a talent that is best gained through practice — a fantastic opportunity for them — and that you’d want to allow them to practice with you. Reassure them that they don’t have to be perfect. They only need to demonstrate a desire to practice and improve over time. It’s also a good idea to educate them that mastering a new skill has four stages:

  • Unconscious incompetence (“I’m not sure I know how to accomplish this.”)
  • Conscious incompetence (“Now I know I’m not very good at this.”)
  • Conscious competence (“I now know that I can accomplish this well.”)
  • Unconscious competence (“I do something well without even realizing it.”)

Then celebrate and acknowledge their feedback skill development.

3. Fear of retaliation.

To point out the obvious, you’re in a position of power. You have access to resources that are essential to your employee. They likely worry that telling you something bad will interfere with their future.

What to do: Show empathy and humility. Try something like, “I understand how difficult it can be to provide feedback to someone who has a voice in what you work on and the progression of your career.” I had the same reservations about providing feedback to my manager. Let me reassure you that I value your willingness to provide me with constructive input, even if it is unfavorable. I know I can improve, and I want to.”

4. Concern about hurting your feelings.

You’re just human, after all. And feedback, especially when offered incorrectly, might elicit sentiments of social rejection. Your direct report is naturally concerned about causing harm to you and the relationship.

What to do: Show your self-awareness by taking the initiative in providing constructive comments to yourself first, which might alleviate their anxieties. “I know I’m sluggish and meticulous in my job, frequently valuing precision over action,” you could add. Others have told me that they find my approach difficult to work with, especially when they’re on a tight timeline. That’s something I’d like to improve on. Would you mind telling me about your experiences?” Once you’ve gotten them talking, you might ask, “Is there anything else I could be working on right now to make your job easier?”

5. Suspicion that nothing will change because of the feedback.

Delivering criticism is difficult, but giving input that does not result in any improvement is much more difficult. Soliciting input without addressing it and acting on it swiftly erodes confidence since it calls into question your sincerity and dependability.

What to do: Inform your direct report of your plans for the comments they provide. “I appreciate you telling me this — and I’m not sure I can address it right now,” for example. Here’s why…” to “This is beneficial, and I want to take steps to modify this behavior.” Here’s my strategy…” And, in both circumstances, continue to aggressively, publicly, and assertively invite people to provide feedback.

Even if you feel you have established a secure and welcoming environment for your direct report to provide feedback, don’t penalize them for not doing so. The complexities of power imbalances, variations in what you and they deem “safe and inviting,” as well as any unpleasant experiences they may have had offering criticism in the past (that may or may not be related to you), may make this more difficult for them than you anticipated.

Nonetheless, do everything you can to ensure you’re obtaining the input you require to improve and achieve. Continual learning leads to continuous progress. Commit to expanding your knowledge, abilities, and expertise. 

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