If you’ve ever had a manager ask you for feedback, then you probably also remember the way you reacted.
You likely hesitated and, if you’re like many professionals, shared some positive reinforcement. If you were feeling courageous, maybe you added a small "this is good but could be better!" area of improvement. But if there was a larger issue at hand? You said nothing, bringing it up felt too risky.
Now you’re in that manager’s position and you’re not getting real feedback from your team. They say things are fine but you know better—no one’s perfect, you probably do have a few areas you could improve in, and you know that the more you improve, the better off your team will perform.
So how do you get honest feedback as a leader? (And before performance review season?) Ask. And ask again.
Assuming that your team will proactively tell you how to improve is a mistake. As the boss, it’s your job to open the door (repeatedly) to make them comfortable to say something. And because I know this can be hard, I came up with the four types of questions that’ll help open up that dialogue.
1. The Open-Ended Question
If you rarely ask for feedback, a simple open-ended question may be enough to speak conversation.
Try one of these out:
I’m always trying to improve as a professional and as a manager. Is there anything I could be doing better or differently?
Getting feedback is how I keep improving and I love using the SSC framework for it—is there anything I should stop, start, or continue doing?
2. The Project-Specific Question
Sometimes people are more comfortable being open when the feedback doesn’t feel as personal. Try asking questions around a project you’re working on with them to get the scoop on what you could do better.
A few examples of how to do this:
Hey Jane, I noticed that the team was scrambling at the end of the week to deliver the project to Client X. Is there anything I could’ve done differently that would have made that smoother for you? I want to make sure I’m helping remove obstacles for the team, even if one of those obstacles includes me or my current process.
The annual gala was a big success! While it’s still fresh in our minds, I’d love your feedback on anything we could do differently next year or ways I could change what I did to be more helpful to you and the team.
3. The Self-Identified Area-to-Work-on Question
In some cases, it’s not a surprise what you need to work on. You may have identified it yourself, or been told at your last review that you really need to have better attention to detail or be more responsive to your team.
When you know what you’re looking to improve, that’s a great chance to ask more targeted questions like:
At my last review, one of the areas of feedback from the team was that my responsiveness wasn’t where it needed to be. I’m actively working on that, but I know that sometimes I slip up and would love your feedback when I do. Is there anything right now you’re waiting on me for?
I’m working on my attention to detail, since I know it’s an area I’m not always as strong as I need to be. Could you give me feedback after this afternoon’s presentation on any places I didn’t get the details just right?
4. The Question That Takes Guts
Finally, there’s the nuclear option. It’s not an easy ask, but hearing an honest answer to it can be one of the most valuable gifts someone gives you. When asking this, it’s incredibly important that your tone, body language, and response be truly open.
Please tell me the thing you think I don’t want to hear.
Before you run off and start asking these questions, let me first share an important rule.
How you react during this discussion is really important. If you get defensive or angry, that employee will be much less likely to share anything with you again, and will likely spread the word to others who report to you.
So make sure to thank them for being honest with you, and tell them you’ll think about what they said. You don’t have to agree, you don’t have to act on it, but you do have to consider it.
Plus, even if you don’t agree, someone out there thinks that of you, which means others might as well; at a minimum you have an area of improvement when it comes to perception or communication. (If you think this might be a challenge, here’s advice on taking constructive criticism like a champ.)
And even if you don’t agree this time around, you want them to bring you the next round of feedback which might be right on the money. As I said earlier, your team will only do better when you grow as a manager.