This article is an excerpt from Insight’s leadership playbook. Ask for feedback to increase employees’ perception of team communication.

Overview

Ask your people to give you candid feedback, either face-to-face or through a note depending on your mutual comfort level. This is signaling to your team that you are there for them and you wish to be the best leader you can be for their team.

Why We Ask for Feedback

When you ask team members for feedback, you are indicating that you are open to constructive criticism. You wish to do a great job, and you are explicitly giving people an opportunity to tell you what they would like for you to improve upon. This builds trust and openness in team communication. Your response to their feedback also demonstrates how you expect them to respond to feedback from their peers or direct reports, and gives you an opportunity to offer your own feedback to them.

How We Ask for Feedback

First and foremost, you must prepare yourself for the worst when asking for feedback. What things do you know you can improve upon, and how will you feel if someone calls those things out? More painfully, consider what you believe you do well: your team members may not share your assessment. Will you be angry or upset if they criticize a quality that you feel is one of your strong suits?

Similarly, consider incredibly positive or flattering things the team member may say. How would your ideal leader respond to such feedback? Would they blush, downplay it, thank the person, steer them back to constructive feedback, or do something else? If you were the one praising your team member, how would you want them to respond to the praise?

Also, consider the reasoning behind why your team member may say positive or negative things. Are they gunning for a promotion and think flattery is the way to move up? Are they frustrated with their work and taking out some anger on you? Are they not sure what to say but are trying to give you something to work with?

The answer to all of these questions will help you temper your ego and respond to any type of feedback they give you without a strong emotional response. If at any point you feel things are getting too personal or you are becoming uncomfortable, politely thank the team member for their feedback and state that you’d like to give more consideration to the feedback they’ve given you before continuing. Ask for—and schedule—a followup time to continue the conversation to demonstrate that you do value what they have to say and want to respond to it. Accept that you may not feel like immediately responding in a productive way to everything the team member may say. This self-check and moderation in your response is yet another demonstration of the type of behavior you demonstrating so team members may emulate it in the future. When you later give this team member feedback, you will appreciate the same type of courtesy if they work to remove their personal feelings and perceptions from the situation and objectively accept and process any constructive criticism you may offer.

If you are given feedback that you feel is negative or reflects poorly on you, take care to avoid (a) responding with justifications for past behavior or (b) deflecting and criticizing their performance. Neither approach is productive and will only hurt the mutual trust and respect you are trying to nurture through this exercise. Instead, you can ask for specific examples of undesirable performance. Whether you choose to do that or not, you should at a minimum ask your team member what they believe you could have done differently.

Consider this action as you acting out the part of a waiter or waitress at a restaurant. You are writing down an order from a patron: they are describing what they like and don’t like, and your job for the moment is to simply write down the order. You do not have to explain the quality of your establishment’s offerings. Take the order back and work on processing it later. Imagining yourself as only being responsible for documenting the feedback can help you detach emotionally from any knee-jerk reactions you may otherwise have.

Many of the steps above are parts of a communication technique called active listening. Once you have asked for feedback, actively listen to what your team member has to say.

Once you have heard everything the team member has to offer, share your notes from the conversation. Recap the main points they had and ask if it’s okay to follow up again later to get more clarity on things you can improve, a future assessment of your progress in those areas, and any additional feedback they may think of later. Thank them for their time. And most importantly of all: work on addressing their feedback over time through changes in your behavior and actions, if you decide that any are necessary.

Expected Results

By the end of this conversation, your team member should feel more comfortable expressing what they truly feel about your performance. You should walk away with actionable feedback on things you can improve upon as a leader. They should walk away with an example demonstration of receiving and professionally responding to constructive criticism.

Example

Arthur is wondering how his team perceives his performance. He hasn’t heard much in terms of feedback lately, so he asks Barry for some feedback.

Arthur: Thank you for giving me a few moments, Barry. I was hoping you could give me some feedback on how I’ve been doing lately. Is there anything you think I could do to improve as a team leader? Anything that stands out as extremely positive that I should do more, or extremely negative that I should do less? I’m planning on asking a few people, but would really like to take some notes down about your thoughts.

Barry: Sure, yeah, I have a few things I’ve been thinking about.

Arthur: Great, I’d love to hear it. What have you got?

Barry: Well, it’s a pretty regular occurrence for you to appear frustrated in our weekly team meetings. Especially when deadlines slip, you kinda… Have a habit of glaring at people.

Arthur didn’t realize it would happen so quickly, but he’s already getting annoyed by this feedback. Of course he gets frustrated! He has to report missed deadlines to his boss, and a lot of those updates in team meetings come as a surprise. However, Arthur restraints himself from defending his actions and remembers that his job right now is to listen and take notes from Barry. He can always defend himself later if he feels that’s the best course of action.

Arthur: Okay, it sounds like I can work on appearing less frustrated during our meetings. Is there something you think I could or should do in response to slipped deadlines that might be more helpful?

Barry: Well, I think the team is sometimes nervous to share small deadline slippages with you because they know you’re going to hate hearing it… So they don’t bring up timeline issues in those meetings until a deadline is already missed. I think when people do finally bring up problems, if you ask what factors led to the missed deadline and what we can do to mitigate those problems in the future, it might make people more willing to speak up.

Arthur: And if I do that a few times, do you think people would help alert me about schedule slippages earlier, so we hit more deadlines?

Barry: Yeah, I can definitely see that. Right now there’s a bit of dread, I think, for some people going into our weekly meeting. But if it becomes a place where they get help instead of getting shamed in front of each other, I think they’d open up a bit more and sound the alarms sooner.

Once again, Arthur does not like this characterization of his meetings. He doesn’t feel like he’s shaming people, but accepts that there must be some sense of truth to these perceptions if Barry is bringing it up. However, Arthur isn’t sure he wants to hear more right now. He can feel his level of frustration increasing and decides he’s had enough for this meeting.

Arthur: Okay, I’ll write that down and try to consider that the next time we go into the meeting. I think that’s probably going to be a big thing for me to tackle, so if you don’t mind, how about you give me a couple of weeks to work on this and we reconvene to see what you think?

Barry: Sure, that sounds fine to me.

Arthur: Okay, thank you for the feedback. Let’s put something on the calendar for… Two weeks from today, same time?

Barry: That works. I hope this was helpful.

Arthur: Yes, I’m glad you’re voicing some concerns and giving me some advice on how the team would prefer I handle meetings. I’ll try to be aware of how my frustration comes across in the future. So when we meet again, please let me know if you’ve noticed a difference in the tone of the meetings.

Barry: Will do. Thank you!

After some reflection, Arthur considers ways he can better manage his expectations in weekly meetings. By the next time he and Barry meet, he’s made some improvements in how he responds to surprises. He’s tried to ask more questions and offer more suggestions instead of expressing frustration or disappointment in front of the team.Barry has noticed the improvement and thanks Arthur for making the meetings feel a little less confrontational and a bit more productive.

The next feedback discussion between Arthur and Barry fills an entire hour. Arthur may occasionally hear feedback he doesn’t agree with or doesn’t appreciate, but he recognizes that the feedback he’s been given so far has made a positive impact on the team. He therefore accepts the team perceptions for what they are—someone else’s perspectives, not necessarily absolute truths—and works to improve those perceptions.

Barry, especially, has seen the positive influence his feedback has had on the team’s perception of Arthur. He realizes that perhaps he should similarly ask for more regular feedback from his co-workers so that he can find ways to improve as well.

Research

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