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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

When the Student Becomes the Master: Taking Feedback From Your Employees

I’d like to say that I’ve evolved enough over the years to the point where feedback—constructive or otherwise—is something I can always accept with an open mind. But, the truth is, no matter how many times it happens, hearing feedback from people that report to me is never easy. I don’t think it is for anyone.

Fortunately, with a little preparation—because, trust me, this will happen to you at some point—you can steel yourself for feedback from your employees and position yourself to learn from the experience. Here are a few examples of the types of feedback I’ve received in the past, and how you can approach similar situations.

The Correction

I don’t think I’ve ever shared this story publicly before, but it was the first time one of my employees had approached me with feedback, and it has stuck with me to this day. So, here goes.

I had just held a meeting with my team, discussing upcoming deadlines and team issues. The meeting went well, but after everyone filed out, one of my employees pulled me aside and asked if he could chat with me. My stomach dropped, assuming he was about to tell me he was leaving (he was a fantastic employee). Little did I know, I was about to feel much, much worse.

He proceeded to tell me I’d been using a particular word incorrectly, and he just thought I would like to know. He tried to soften the blow by reminding me he was an English Lit major in college and that this was a common mistake, but nonetheless, I was horrified.

I thanked him for his honesty, tried to smile and ignore the fact my face was undoubtedly red with embarrassment, and walked back to my desk (where I immediately looked up the word in the dictionary and learned that he was right).

But when I finally recovered from the horror of the confrontation, I realized that I should thank him for having the courage to approach me. Giving feedback to a manager is tough under any circumstance, but telling your manager she’s straight up wrong had to be nerve-wracking. And I respected that.

So as hard as it was to approach him, it was the best thing I could have done. As it turned out, he respected the fact I swallowed my pride, owned up to my mistake, and thanked him for pointing it out.

This experience will always remind me that just because I’m the boss, my employees were hired because they possessed skills and potential I may not have had. Yours were, too. So, as hard is may seem when employees step in, try to swallow your pride. They can probably teach you a thing or two—if you let them.

The Criticism

What’s even harder to swallow than a correction from one of your employees? A straight-up criticism. That said, I’ve found you can learn loads about both yourself and your employees from this type of feedback—if you can keep your emotions in check.

Here’s an example. As a rule, my management style is fairly hands-off. I like my employees to go through the process of figuring things out themselves—or at least trying to—before I step in. While this seemed to work for most of my staff, I had one employee who just didn’t learn well that way. The problem was, I hadn’t recognized it.

One day, she pulled me aside after a meeting and admitted she was having trouble. While at first I thought she was trying to tell me she couldn’t cut it, she quickly squashed that assumption when she flat-out told me she didn’t think my management style was effective. At least, it wasn’t for her. She proceeded to tell me that she knew she could do the job well and wanted to succeed, but that in order to do that, I needed to do my part, too.

Once again, I was horrified I hadn’t picked up on this sooner. But while my honest first reaction was to blurt out “I’m your boss, and you’ll do as I say!” I held my tongue and tried to process what she was saying. While this was extremely hard to hear, I realized she was right: My job was to mentor and manage the entire team—not just the ones with whom my management style worked best.

We immediately sat down to brainstorm how we could remedy the situation. I let her talk, and I took notes. In this case, I really did revert to the student's role, while she educated me on how I could improve as her manager. And guess what? It worked. She ended up being one of the most valuable members of the team, and I became a much more effective manager—both to her and to many other people I worked with in the future.

Remember that, if you listen to your employees' concerns, instead of immediately reacting to the fact that they’re sharing less-than-stellar feedback, you can learn a lot about your team—and yourself.

The Compliment

Ahh, the best type of feedback—compliments! We all love them, and when they come our way, it’s only natural to want to bask in the glow of goodness as long as possible. But, as a manager, taking compliments from your employees can also become tricky, especially if you let them go to your head.

A while back, I was training a new employee, and to be honest, I didn’t think I was doing such a great job. So, when she approached me after her first week and told me I was a great teacher and that I was incredibly knowledgeable, beautiful, and fabulous (OK, maybe not those last two), I was flattered!

The problem was, I took that feedback to mean I could just keep doing what I was doing, and that I didn’t need to adjust as she came up the learning curve. Big mistake. Fortunately, I realized this fairly quickly, and was able to re-calibrate my training approach to get her back on track, but if I hadn’t, I would’ve put her at a serious disadvantage for future growth.

Lesson learned: Take compliments in stride, but don’t assume they mean your work is done. A compliment just means you did something right, it doesn’t mean you’ll always do everything right going forward.

Taking feedback like a champ might be one of the hardest lessons you’ll learn as a manager. But recognizing the fact your employees actually have something to teach you is a good thing—because it will help you continue to grow in your role.

Photo of boss and employee courtesy of Shutterstock.