Nine Ways To Stimulate Healthy Feedback

What are some things over the years you wanted to tell your boss, but didn’t feel you could? My list would probably look something like this:

• Dude, you need a breath mint.

• You complain about not having enough time, but you’re the worst time manager I’ve ever seen and now you’re wasting my time.

• Seriously? You’re telling me this report "isn’t quite what you were looking for" when you could never explain what you did want?

• Why didn’t you ask me if I knew how to run this system before you bought it? What idiot buys equipment without consulting the people who’ll be using it?

• I didn’t understand your instruction the first time. Repeating the information back to me, using the exact same words . . . only louder . . . isn’t going to help.

Did I ever say any of these to my bosses? No. But looking back, I should have.

We’re Just Human

Yes, leaders are human. Just like their employees, they’re going to make the same mistakes over and over without constructive feedback. The rub is creating an environment where it is not only OK to give constructive feedback, but it’s also encouraged. But, that’s easier said than done. 

Now that I manage folks, I’ve developed my own feedback recipe, which I’ll probably always be perfecting. As you’ll see, it’s mostly about keeping an open, positive dialogue.

1. Ask for feedback. Don’t be afraid to ask for a report on your leadership. "Are things working here? What can I do to make things work better?" And more importantly, listen.

2. Ongoing review. Don’t just ask once for feedback. This is a door that needs to always be open, and walked through often.

3. Don’t wait. If something crops up, let people know it should be addressed right away. Waiting just always makes things worse. (I’d rather find out I’ve done something embarrassing once, versus finding out I’ve been doing it wrong for six months.)

4. Be specific. Show employees how to give specific feedback and also how to identify emotional or vague feedback. "That’s just too weird," is a vague statement. “The color orange in that marketing campaign for lemons may confuse people” is specific.

5. Specific, but not too specific. Make the feedback specific, but not so specific that you cripple creativity. "That lemon is all wrong. Put it in the left hand corner, turned to the left, right under logo," is too specific. "The lemon looks out of place. Is there another place where it would make a bolder statement?" gives the person some room to move.

6. Keep it positive. Don’t make people feel stupid or embarrassed. As a rule, give feedback in private, but announce the positive feedback to all.

7. More good than bad. Give more positive feedback than negative feedback. People have a tendency to get focused on the bad and forget about all the good work they’re doing.

8. Thank you. When you get feedback (good or bad), thank the person for taking the time to talk to you.

9. Follow up. If you’ve received some feedback from an employee, follow up later to make sure things have improved.

It’s all about communication — open, clear communication. Feedback is just communication clarification.

Wondering What They Say About You?

You may be saying, I’m working on more open communication, but I’d like to figure out what my employees think about me right now.

Here are a couple ideas:

• Create a survey. I teach at the University of Washington and students are asked to complete several anonymous surveys about my performance. The great thing about surveys is that you can make them as specific as you want.

• Watch a video. You can check out some informative videos, like Leadership Feedback: What employees want to tell you...but don't! and see if you fall into any of the categories discussed, such as lack of transparency, lack of inclusion, etc.

• Feed them. Take the team out to lunch or dinner. People like good food and it’s a great way to get people talking.

Yes, you may get feedback that makes you cringe. OK, I can guarantee you’re going to hate some of the feedback. But let’s face it, wouldn’t you rather be offered a breath mint than the alternative?

Diane Mettler has been a manager for nearly 20 years. She's also a freelance writer and editor—with hundreds of her articles published in a variety of magazines—and teaches writing at the University of Washington.