You’ve likely been in this hot seat before: You break the news to your boss that you’re leaving, and after discussing how much longer you’ll be around and what projects need to be wrapped up, they ask, “Do you have any feedback for me as a manager?”
For many people, this is the only time they’re ever asked to directly comment on their boss’ performance. That’s because yearly reviews typically take a top-down approach. But just as employees thrive on frequent feedback, managers can benefit from knowing where they stand as leaders and make adjustments in real time — not just when their direct report has one foot out the door.
Employees rarely volunteer opinions of their managers for two reasons from a neuroscience perspective. First, research shows feedback conversations are just as stressful for the giver as the receiver because it activates a fight-or-flight response in both people’s brains. Second, the superior subordinate power dynamic adds to this anxiety because status, or where we stand relative to others, is one of the domains of social interactions that can trigger a threat or reward state in the brain. Just being in the same room as their manager can cause workers to feel intimidated and clam up.
The result: Managers miss out on valuable insights that can help them improve. Even the most circumspect and self-aware individual needs a reality check sometimes because our instinct is to evaluate ourselves positively (no surprise there). Feedback, especially the negative kind, helps managers get a more accurate view of their performance.
To turn the alarm level down and encourage employees to speak up, managers should proactively ask for feedback. Our research shows the simple act of asking cuts the stress in half for both parties involved, making it easier for the giver to share quality feedback and the receiver to process it. In the long run, employees will emulate this behavior and start initiating these conversations more, which in turn allows managers to provide much richer feedback than before.
Here’s how to create a pro-feedback culture for your team and get your employees to open up.
Psychological safety first
When employees feel they can take risks without fearing repercussions, which is the hallmark of psychological safety, they’re more likely to share honest opinions on whether you’re acing it as a manager. To foster this atmosphere, make it clear that you welcome everyone’s ideas and perspectives by seeking their input whenever appropriate. If you’re sharing a company update about a product launch with your team, set aside 10 to 15 minutes for comments or questions. Thank each person and respond thoughtfully to show you value their participation.
Give people choices
While some people have no problem telling the truth to your face, 74% of employees in one survey said they’re more willing to share feedback if it’s anonymous. So, besides asking point-blank, try using a Google form or a platform like Free Suggestion Box that allows everyone to speak freely without identifying themselves.
Phrase your questions as clearly as possible; the more specific your wording, the easier it is for employees to give feedback. Research also shows only detailed critical feedback improves performance. So instead of asking, “How did I do in that meeting?” try, “Did I make people feel safe in that meeting?” If you recently led a team project, say to your employees, “I tried to provide clear instructions at each step of that project. Did that come across?”
Make a value proposition
Another way to encourage employees to speak up is by demonstrating that their opinions matter. Perceived usefulness, or the impression that their feedback serves a purpose, makes people less afraid of retaliation. When you broach a conversation with an employee, be upfront about why you want to know what they think and how it helps you. You can say, “Learning my strengths and weaknesses allows me to identify areas I need to work on to become a better manager.”
After receiving their feedback, update them on your progress and see if they think you’ve improved. This confirms your commitment and leads to greater improvement in leadership skills. In one study, managers who discussed their employees’ feedback with them achieved greater growth than those who didn’t.
Master your mind
Having others call out your shortcomings can be a demoralizing experience. It undermines your sense of status as a leader, and you may feel defensive. To acknowledge your accomplishments and soften the blow, first ask what you did well before jumping into what you could do differently in the future. When you hear something that ruffles you, remember that you’re a work in progress and capable of change. By embracing this growth mindset, your skills and performance are more likely to improve. You can reinforce this belief by reframing negative thoughts by using the word “yet.” Rather than thinking, “I’m not a good leader,” change it to “I’m not a good leader yet.”
Another benefit of putting yourself out there? Everyone, from your superiors to peers and subordinates, thinks more highly of managers who actively seek out constructive criticism. So consider the effect that status boost might have the next time you ask for feedback.