Managers should ask for feedback

I've lost trust in my manager before. It sucks! I didn't believe he understood me or my strengths, and I doubted that he had my best interests in mind. This hobbled my ability to perform. At the root of this broken relationship was a certainty that if I told him about the problems I was having with him, I'd suffer for it. So I held it in, our relationship spiraled, and we both missed out.

The value of feedback

My #1 recommended book for anyone who wants to become a more effective leader or even just a happier person is "Thanks for the Feedback," by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. This book opened my eyes to how I could develop my ability to receive feedback to build and maintain better relationships.

Here's how the authors describe a clash between two individuals, driven by a misunderstanding of each other's role:

If two people bump into each other enough and cause each other enough frustration, each will begin considering the other an "adversary." Each attributes the problem to the personality and questionable intentions of the other. But often the true culprit is the structure of the roles they are in, which are (accidentally) creating chronic conflict. If we are each at one end of a rope and our job is to pull, then merely doing our jobs creates a tug-of-war.

If a manager and an engineer each have different expectations of how the other should perform, then they're bound to surprise and disappoint one another. Left unaddressed, this will become frustration and eventually distrust. In the manager's eyes, the engineer is egotistical, directionless, or insubordinate. To the engineer, the manager is cold and controlling. They dig themselves deeper and deeper, confirming each other's beliefs, until they're entrenched like enemy soldiers peering at each other across no-man's land.

So what's the solution? As you might have guessed, it's to improve your understanding of one another by giving and receiving feedback. "Thanks for the Feedback" provides great insights into how to become effective at this, and I suggest you read it. For a manager who wants to build trust with their direct reports, I'll distill the takeaway down to: "Generate feedback."

The manager's duty to act

Anyone can give anyone else feedback, so in theory a direct report could break this cycle by voluntarily offering feedback to the manager.

For someone with a risk-taking, assertive personality, this might be no problem. But for other folks this can be a scary proposition. They could be worried about the manager's reaction. If it's negative, what if they get passed over for a raise, or have their rep tarnished behind closed doors? Or even fired? They might decide it's better to stay quiet and hope things get better, or just try to guess at and conform to the manager's expectations. Or quit! And the result would be the manager loses out on an opportunity to improve their performance and that of the team.

In contrast, a manager has nothing to lose and everything to gain. The worst a manager can experience from hearing tough feedback is a bruised ego. But the benefit is that this opens the door to improving the relationship, which will improve the direct report's morale and productivity, which will reflect well on the manager. This is an investor's dream: limited downside with unlimited upside potential.

I believe that this dynamic between a manager and a direct report gives the manager the greater responsibility and the greater incentive to address this problem.

How to generate feedback

I'll assume you're a people manager and that you're convinced by this point and you want to act. Here's how I've internalized my beliefs about generating feedback and putting them into action.

Establish the fundamentals

Have regular 1-on-1s. Obviously feedback can't happen without communication. You need to set up regular 1-on-1s with each of your direct reports to create an opportunity for sharing  feedback. The value of 1-on-1s has been extensively written about elsewhere. If you'd like to learn more about how to conduct effective 1-on-1s, I recommend reading "The Manager's Path" by Camille Fournier. (In fact this book and "Thanks for the Feedback" are in my favorites list!)

Give feedback. Folks on your team might not have much experience giving feedback. They might need you to lead by example. So normalize this behavior by providing feedback to your direct reports in 1-on-1s. Talk about the feedback you're giving and how you're giving it. Again, "Thanks for the Feedback" is a wonderful resource that has helped me critically think about and discuss the behavior of giving feedback.

Solicit feedback

Create psychological safety. Managers have to work extra hard to create that psychological safety that makes reports comfortable enough to give them honest, constructive feedback. There's no recipe for creating this sense of safety. The approach that works for you will depend on who you are, who your direct report is, and your history and relationship. Here are a few tactics that I like, though I recommend you use them only if they feel authentic to you.

Show vulnerability. As Mark Zuckerberg would say, I was and still am human. I have flaws and I worry about how they affect my management ability. But I want to do better, and my team is in the best position to observe me and tell me how I can improve. I might share all of this context with the person I'm speaking with.

Be transparent. I'm still learning how to be an effective manager. Maybe I've received feedback from others about a specific behavior that I need to work on and I'm seeking out confirmation. Does this feedback resonate with my direct report? Has my team noticed this as well?

Take the direct route. If I haven't heard feedback from someone in awhile, I might just throw out, "I'm looking for feedback. From your perspective, what's one thing should we do differently as a team to be more effective? What's one thing I should do? What should I stop doing?" Or if that doesn't feel right, I might try a more subtle, "I'm sure you've had a moment where you've thought: hmm, we could be doing this better. Have you had one of those moments lately?"

Accept what you hear

Listen. The feedback you get might not be what you expected, which can trigger surprise, shame, and even anger. But even if the feedback you're hearing doesn't make you happy, you should be happy that your direct report is sharing it. You signed up for this ride, so buckle in and try to understand the ideas and experiences the other person is expressing. Here are a few things I might say to encourage more feedback in the future, and again I recommend you find what's authentic for you:

  • "Thanks for the feedback."
  • "You've given me a lot to think about."
  • If I'm able to relate to the feedback, I might validate it by telling a story: "I think I know how you feel. I've felt like that way before, too. There was this one time..."
  • If I'm not clear on something, I'll ask questions until I understand the feedback. "When you said I don't appreciate your burping ability, can you help me understand what I'm doing to make you feel that way? Or is it something I'm not doing?"
  • If I am clear on something, I'll confirm it by repeating it back to the person I'm talking with. "Okay. Let me see if I understand what you're saying. When you burp, I tend to grimace and mutter under my breath. But burps are how you express your concerns about our code quality. So my reaction shuts you down and embarrasses you in front of the team. Do I have that right?"
  • And if I don't feel prepared to address the feedback yet, I'll defer doing so until a later time. "Can we talk about this more at our next 1-on-1 after I've had some time to think about this?"

Think and plan. Some feedback can be addressed in the moment, but I've found that weightier feedback requires more consideration. If my direct report has consequential feedback for me, I'll thank them, schedule a followup, and use the time to reflect on what I've heard. Was anything left unsaid? What's at the root of the feedback? And what is the most effective action I can take in response to it?

Perception is reality – if someone feels I'm not valuing their burps, then that's the way it is. I can choose to share my burp-recognition in a more meaningful or visible way for them. Maybe this means a raise or promotion. Or it might just be an occasional, "Thanks for the great burp."

Form a true understanding of the feedback, choose a course of action, and then seek confirmation with your direct report at your followup meeting. Even if you're off-base, the effort that goes into this process shows that you care and will create trust in your relationship.

Enjoy the trust in your relationship

Once giving and receiving feedback feels like a natural motion in your 1-on-1s, you'll find yourself learning about problems and concerns among your team more quickly, allowing you to resolve them sooner. Your team will trust you more, you'll trust the team more, and morale will rise for everyone. It's a good feeling – enjoy it!

Further reading

See all of Lara Hogan's articles on feedback. My favorite is "The Feedback Equation".

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