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How Managers Can Encourage Employees to Give Honest Feedback

A blue paper with the word feedback hanging on an orange background.

​For a manager, improving or growing as a professional destined for bigger and better roles requires feedback. And this feedback shouldn't just come from the manager's supervisors, but from her employees as well.

The problem is that the higher up the professional "food chain" you get, the less likely you are to ask for the feedback that everyone needs, or to take it to heart when you do get it.

"We know from research that the more senior a person gets in an organization, the less likely they are to ask for feedback and the less likely they are to hear it when it's given or to act on it," explained Amy Gallo, an expert on conflict, communication and workplace dynamics whose company, Amy E. Gallo Consulting Inc., is based in Providence County, R.I. "Plus, what got you [into a senior management role] seems to have worked, so there are less incentives to make any changes."

Moreover, Gallo noted, "assuming that people are going to give you feedback and feel comfortable doing it is a big mistake."

It's really up to managers to carefully and consistently create opportunities for direct reports to give not just feedback, but also genuine feedback. Being willing to take a hard look in the mirror as a manager can go a long way.

Doug Meyer-Cuno, an entrepreneur and founder of Empowered Leadership, a company that helps leaders empower their teams, said a 360-degree review process facilitated by an HR consulting company helped him discover that, "being more of a vision-focused individual, I would quickly skim through an e-mail or a report without … focusing on the full content."

His employees told him that this left them feeling like their thoughts weren't adequately considered or valued. So, he said, "we created a system in which specific e-mails and reports were highlighted. As a result, I knew certain e-mails and reports had an elevated importance to my team members." This helped him be more attentive to the important ideas of his team members, which made them feel validated.

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Getting results like these can often come down to timing and communication.

The first thing to do, Gallo suggested, is communicate to your team that you value feedback so you can continue to learn and grow.

Next, managers looking for feedback need to seriously consider when and how to ask for it.

Gallo recalled once working for a manager who was great in many ways but didn't know how to find the right time to ask for feedback. He would typically ask if Gallo had any feedback only at the end of her own 360-degree review meeting. Even though Gallo excelled in her role and got glowing reviews, the process was still nerve-wracking for her. Once her own review was over, she said, she just wanted to get out of there, not linger longer to give her manager feedback. In other words, it was hardly an ideal time for Gallo to give her manager feedback on his own performance.

Another thing to keep in mind when asking for feedback as a manager is that it's not a one-and-done event. If you ask for feedback and don't get it, you can't assume that no one has anything to offer. Instead, you should take that as a signal that you have to try harder and perhaps dig a little deeper to get it.

Rosette Cataldo, vice president of performance and talent strategy at Workhuman, an employee performance company based in Framingham, Mass., said her organization has achieved a deep level of trust between managers and their workers by increasing the frequency of feedback opportunities. Last year, Workhuman clients increased the frequency of manager/employee check-ins by 152 percent.

This shift created more "moments of connection, sharing and transparency for both parties," Cataldo said. "These regular meetings create the bonds of relationships, and these bonds are the foundation of the trust and psychological safety needed for employees to feel empowered to give their manager feedback."

However, the process doesn't stop once you get the feedback you're looking for.

Consider the manager who's great at asking for feedback, but not so good about making changes based on that feedback. Eventually, her workers will feel that they're wasting their time and are likely to stop offering feedback altogether.

Managers should do the opposite. If a direct report tells a manager, for example, that he arranges too many meetings, the manager should look at his calendar, determine if there's some merit to the suggestion, perhaps ask others if they agree, then eliminate some meetings or make some shorter, if he feels that's warranted.

There will be times when a manager gets feedback she can't act on. When that happens, it's important to close the loop with those who offered suggestions: Tell them you heard and considered what they said and explain why you aren't able to make changes.

Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis.


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