A guide for leaders: Gaining honest feedback from your team

I often hear from senior leaders that they do not receive meaningful feedback on their performance. Unfortunately in many organisations it is still a taboo to tell our managers what we think of them, even if they are open to listening. This can lead to “corridor conversations”, where those who are unhappy with an individual or a situation feel more comfortable discussing it behind the manager’s back.

With conversations taking place away from your ears, the risk is that senior managers become less self-aware and emotionally intelligent, and a gap arises between how they see themselves and how others see them. Moving these conversations out of the corridor and into the meeting room involves significant cultural change but is vital for leaders who want to keep improving their performance. Here are my thoughts on how team leaders can gain honest 360 degrees feedback from all levels.

Be willing to listen and open to change 

If you ask for feedback you must be ready to hear it and expect to have to change, even if it comes from those less experienced than you. This can be tough for leaders, as they may not be used to people questioning their actions or critiquing their approach. It is best practice for all managers to receive a balanced assessment of their performance, with positive strengths as well as pointers for improvement from all levels.

Make open conversations the norm

The Red Arrows are a good example of a team which has made open, honest conversations a part of daily business by normalising the feedback process. This interview with former Red Arrows commanding officer Jas Hawker explains how in every de-brief the team feeds back on the leader’s performance in a group setting:

“The leader’s performance is judged to the same standard as everybody else, in front of everybody else. It is important that we create a learning environment that has no seniority or hierarchy; everyone is equal, everyone is there to learn,” said former Red Arrows commanding officer, Jas Hawker.

It is a scary thought to have your team openly critiquing your performance in front of each other and yourself but there’s real value in this for everyone. A team critiquing a leader creates a culture of open, honest feedback which makes it more natural and comfortable for the team to share their views on each other too. Try introducing a feedback section to your weekly team meetings. You could be surprised how effective this can be for overall performance, as well as your personal development.

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Seek actionable advice

One of the risks with asking for feedback as a senior leader is that you don’t get the honest opinions you need as less senior staff may feel uncomfortable criticising their boss, they may fear the consequences. A way around this is to ask your team what advice they have for you. That way you will gain actionable advice and ideas to try moving forward.

Canvas feedback from all quarters

Your reviewers do not all need to be from within the business. One leader I coached wanted to secure feedback from a full spectrum of those in his life, including family, stakeholders, bosses and employees. This is important as often family members are the first to notice stress or problems, while your team might think you are completely “xen”.

Find a coach or an independent person to gather feedback for you

If you really want honest 360 degree feedback from direct reports, external stakeholders and others in the business, a coaching programme or feedback gathered for you by someone else, can be a good way to achieve this. It removes the personal element of asking for feedback yourself and others may feel more comfortable being honest with an independent third party. Of course, the ideal scenario is to create relationships where people are open to being honest with you directly but this trust can take time.

Bring people on your development journey

Once you have received feedback and decided to work on it, tell others on your team and in your peer group what you are working on. Ask them to call you out on this habit or behaviour in the moment and show them how you are changing. This will help you to embed the new behaviour as well as change perceptions of you more quickly. This is particularly important for senior leaders as labels (such as “she’s not a good listener” or “he’s a real taskmaster”) tend to stick when you are less exposed to everyday contact with co-workers of all levels.

Pioneer an open approach, leading by example

Once you become converted to the value of receiving regular, transparent feedback, you can start to change the wider culture in the business. Encourage others to frequently ask their teams and beyond for open, honest feedback. This will gradually build strong relationships and achieve better alignment of goals, ultimately creating a more harmonious, constructive and productive environment for everyone.

Gaining honest feedback from your team can create a much better working culture, unlike these three companies which show how badly it can be done.

Business coach Elaine Grix is an expert in leadership and team development.

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