Why we don’t get honest feedback as leaders, even when we ask for it.
As a CEO or manager, it can feel utterly maddening to have leadership blindspots — especially when you want to know what you improve on as a leader, in the first place.
You try everything in your power to be “in the know”: employee surveys, suggestion boxes, one-on-ones, town hall meetings… You tell your employees that your door is always open, that you want to hear their honest feedback, that you can handle the truth…and yet it doesn’t seem enough.
Why is that the case? There are two primary reasons why you continually seem to have blindspots as a leader…
When you’re the boss, there’s an inherent power dynamic underpinning every interaction you have with your employees — so fear comes into play. Employees worry about you treating them differently if they speak up. In an employee’s head, you might take a comment personally and become defensive. You might choose to delay a promotion. You might even fire her or him.
But this feeling of fear is not the biggest reason why employees choose not to share what’s on their minds.
The biggest reason employees don’t speak up at work is because of a sense of futility — they believe even if they were to say something, nothing would change. They don’t think their opinion or idea will have an effect on the outcome.
In fact, studies have shown futility to be 1.8 times more powerful than fear as an obstacle to giving feedback. Specifically, according to a 2009 Cornell National Social Survey, more employees reported withholding their ideas due to a sense of futility (26%) than a fear of personal consequences (20%).
In other words, it’s not that we’re merely scared of giving feedback. It’s that we don’t think anything will come of the feedback when we voice it. Futility, more than fear, is why employees choose not to speak up to their bosses.
This means as a manager, founder, or CEO, you need to overcome these sentiments of fear and futility if you want to avoid blindspots.
So what’s the first step is to overcoming the sentiment of “fear”? We have to Go First.
A simple framework to help give tough feedback to a coworker.
The most common question I get asked by a manager who doesn’t want to become a bad boss is: “How do I give negative feedback to a coworker?”
Giving honest feedback is the most deceptively difficult thing for a manager to do. A survey of nearly 8,000 people, in fact, found that 21% of managers avoid giving negative feedback entirely.
In our heads, it seems straightforward enough. We know it’s the right thing to do. We know it’s important. We should just get on with it.
But it’s never that simple. We don’t want to demotivate an employee with our feedback. We don’t want an employee to think we’re out to get them. We don’t want our feedback to backfire.
All is not lost. It’s possible to give honest feedback and not feel stressed — and not have it blow up in our face. Here are the four things that good managers do when delivering negative feedback:
Come from a place of care.
You’re giving feedback because you care. You deeply care about this person’s personal and career growth. You deeply care about the project’s success. You want both the person and the company to thrive. Communicate these things. Ask yourself: “What can I say to let this person know that this feedback is coming from a place of care and helpfulness? How do I let this person know I have good intentions, and that I’m not trying to spite them or be rude?” As you deliver the piece of critical feedback, make this clear.
For example, you could say something like: “I’m saying this because I believe in you and I want you to succeed…” or “This is important to me because I care about the company’s direction as a whole…” or “This matters to me because I only want to ensure that we perform well as a team…”
Come from a place of observation.
We’re often worried that the person is going to take any negative feedback personally. This is a big reason why we avoid giving feedback or sugarcoat our feedback. It’s to say, “Hey look, I don’t think you’re a bad person…” or “I don’t want you to be mad at me…” Instead, look to communicate your feedback more objectively. Come from a place of observation. Focus on the actions and the situation of what happened — what you observed — and not the personal attributes or characteristics of the person.
For example, if you think a coworker wrote a sloppy email to the client, instead of saying: “I think you’re careless and sloppy”… you could say, “I noticed that in the email you wrote, there were a few careless mistakes that seemed sloppy.” See the difference? The former makes it about the person, while the latter makes it about your observations on what has happened.
Come from a place of fallibility.
Your feedback is not infallible. Don’t forget that your feedback is only an interpretation of what you observed, and your own perspective of how things can improve going forward. Your perspective is not a universal truth. You could be wrong. Be willing to admit that your feedback, while it’s something you strongly believe in, is colored by your own personal lens. Ask yourself: “How can I remind this person that this feedback is only my opinion ? That this isn’t the word of God, that mistakes happen, that there may be information I’m missing?”
A few examples of how you can do this is to say directly: “I might be off…” or to ask, “Is there any information that you think I might be missing?”
Come from a place of curiosity.
When you give feedback, it should feel like a conversation. No one likes being talked at. Your time to give feedback also as a time to listen to what the other person thinks, as well. Be curious. Consider: “How does this person feel about my feedback? Was there anything I might have misinterpreted or overlooked? Is there anything that I can be doing better to help support the other person?” You want to invite the person to give their side of their story.
To do this, simply ask after sharing your feedback: “What do you think?”
When you’re curious, you’re signaling that you value hearing their perspective on what happened. You’re not mad, upset, or resentful. You see the moment of giving feedback as an opportunity to learn and get better as a leader, yourself.
Sure, all the tactics I’m describing are a little more nuanced than other ways you might be familiar with to give feedback — especially the catchy “Shit Sandwich” moniker, in particular. And yes, they require a bit more intention and thought prior to do well.
But when you come from a place of care, observation, fallibility, and curiosity — it makes for a much more honest and productive conversation. You’re going to get a better result.
The person on the other side is going to feel like you’re really trying to help them. And that’s the whole point of giving feedback, after all.
P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to shareso others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)
Your reaction sets the tone in your company. Don’t blow it by blowing up when you receive negative feedback from your team. Here’s how.
They’re watching you.
I don’t mean to sound creepy. But it’s something to come to terms with as a leader: Your team is watching you.
As a leader, your actions set the example — especially, when it comes to creating an open, honest environment in the workplace.
Your employees are taking note: When someone offers a dissenting opinion, do you come off as annoyed and brush it aside? Or do you calmly listen and say, “Thank you, I’ll consider that”?
How you receive feedback — especially negative feedback — sets the precedent for how welcome honest, forthcoming perspectives are in your company. Dismiss feedback on a whim or become overly defensive, and you’re not likely to hear critical feedback from that person again.
So how do you receive feedback well? Here are five things you can do…
Make empathy your mission.
“How could they be saying that?” “I’m not sure that’s true…” Ever catch yourself thinking that while someone is giving you negative feedback? One of the most common, immediate reactions to feedback is to evaluate what the other person is saying… often before the other person is even finished talking! How can we truly listen to feedback and take in the parts that may be valuable, if we’re not completely listening to what’s being said? To avoid this tendency to pre-judge feedback, make empathy your mission. Decide that your role in receiving feedback is simply to try to understand the other person. You don’t need to obey or agree with them in that moment — just understand. Once you make empathy your mission, you’ll be able to hear feedback for what it is: An opportunity to learn something, in some way.
Sit in silence for 3–4 seconds.
To further mitigate your knee-jerk reaction to want to respond right away and offer a counterpoint, sit in silence for a few seconds after someone gives you a piece of feedback. While it might seem or feel unnatural initially, doing so gives you the space to digest what is being said, instead of superficially reacting to it.
Write it down.
Whether or not you are an avid note-taker by habit, bring a notebook the next time you’re in a one-on-one meeting. Having a notebook or sheet of paper in front of you, ready to take notes, physically demonstrates to the other person that you’re attentive to what they’re saying. You’re not thinking about what you’re going to say next — you’re intentionally trying to take in what they’re saying, and process it thoughtfully.
Assume positive intent.
Don’t get defensive. Getting defensive is the surest way to discourage someone from ever telling you their honest opinions in the future. The minute we become defensive is when we permanently dissuade the other person from ever bringing up feedback again. To overcome defensiveness, assume positive intent. The reason why we often become defensive is we think that the person giving us feedback doesn’t have our best intentions in mind — they’re out to “get us” or have a separate agenda. When we choose to assume positive intent in the other person, that urge to become defensive melts away. We stop questioning the “why” behind the feedback, and become more receptive to what’s being said.
The more talking you’re doing, the less listening you’re doing. So talk less. Talking less is the best way to show you’re listening to the feedback you’re receiving. Be conscious of your temptation to launch into full-on rebuttal mode, or to share your side of things. If you do feel compelled to say something, tell the other person, “Thank you — I’m going to think on what you said. Do you mind if I get back to you by X date?” That way you give yourself more time to think about what you do want to say, and you’re showing that you’re listening by saying fewer things.
Of course, writing about “talking less” is much easier to do than actually “talking less” in practice. Particularly, in the heat of the moment, when someone is telling you something you don’t want to hear, it is not easy to just shut up and listen to them 🙂
To internalize these tactics, just try one. No need to go after all five. Pick one. Perhaps you try bringing a notebook to your next one-on-one meeting. Or remind yourself to assume positive intent the next time you read an email from an employee that contains some criticism.
Regardless of which tactic you choose to try first, merely choosing to try to receive feedback well in the first place is a significant, positive step toward building an open, honest company culture.
Your reaction to feedback is a test for you as a leader. What example will you set for your team of how critical or dissenting views will be handled?
Remember, they’re watching.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy something big we’re working on…
Delivering negative feedback is hard — especially when you’re seen as a “the positive person” on your team. Here’s how to start doing it more regularly.
“I need to right the ship.” A member of The Watercooler, our online leadership community, admitted this a few months ago. He shared how he’d long delayed giving critical feedback, and it was causing team chemistry problems.
“I think it will seem out of character for me to go from ‘positive nice guy image’ to ‘critical feedback,’ so I’m trying to think of best approach,” he revealed.
His admission prompted a wonderful discussion in The Watercooler: How do you start giving difficult feedback, especially when you haven’t been doing so regularly? Here’s what other Watercooler members recommended…
Ask for permission.
Set aside time to have a discussion, instead of just dropping the feedback on the person unsuspectingly. Everyone processes news differently, and you don’t want to bombard someone in the middle of their work day. You could say, for instance, “Have a moment to chat about some feedback I have about the last client meeting?”
That being said, still do it right away.
There’s never an ideal time to give feedback. One Watercooler member remarked how “I don’t wait to give feedback, I give it as soon as possible. This removes any stress worrying about it. Additionally, the details are fresh in everyones mind and it’s relevant and topical vs. after the fact.”
Give yourself small “feedback” goals.
Challenge yourself to find three things every day on which you could give feedback. This helps train your mind to see everything as a opportunity to give feedback, instead of dismissing your own observations.
Explain “the why.”
Share context of why you’ve decided to start giving more feedback. Are you motivated to become a better leader? Were you inspired by a recent book you read? Providing background about why you want to start giving more honest feedback will help employees see the big picture.
Acknowledge your own mistakes.
When you admit how you yourself were wrong, you help create a safe environment for people to make mistakes, learn and grow from them. It also shows that just because you’re the boss, you’re not infallible to critical feedback, yourself.
Invite critical feedback about yourself.
Feedback is not a mandate — it’s a conversation. You should actively ask specific questions about yourself to get critical feedback on your own performance and management style. It’s the only way for a team to grow together. If feedback is only one-way, your team will never progress as much as it could or should.
Anytime you feel intimidated by giving critical feedback, remind yourself that this is in the best interest of your team. Being a good leader requires hard and uncomfortable conversations, and as unnatural or painful as it might seem, you’re doing the right thing by telling the truth.
P.S.: If you enjoyed this piece, please feel free to share + give it 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)
In 30 minutes, wherever you are in the world, you can now get the basics of getting and giving honest feedback.
I’ve always dreamt of creating an online class. Yes, our writing has been helpful for folks who want to quickly digest a useful tip or two. And our half-day, in-person workshops have been excellent for leaders looking for an in-depth master class to actively learn and practice their skills.
But with video, you get a slice of both worlds: An interactive, breezy experience that you don’t have to be in-person for.
So when Skillshare (a global online learning community with 4MM+folks!) approached us and wanted to build an online class together, I was delighted.
Partnering with Skillshare, we took some of the most useful, high-level bits of our in-person workshop and summarized them into five quick videos that take a half hour to watch, all together.
For next 6 days (starting today, July 24th!), our Skillshare class is entirely FREE. And if you use this link below, you’ll get access to it for two more months for free, as well 👉 skl.sh/knowyourcompany
Curious what the class is like? Take a peek at a few clips below.
Dig the idea of a quick online class, but think in-depth, hands-on learning is more your speed? Check out the customized workshops we offer, where I spend a half-day with your leadership team and give them the tools to build a culture of feedback.
Beer taps and foosball tables aren’t signs of a strong company culture — honest communication and rigorous + respectful debate are. Here’s how to build a culture of the latter.
Culture, at its core, is not what we outwardly say or show. Culture is rooted in our basic underlying assumptions — what we truly believe, even when we choose not to verbalize those thoughts. In order to tap into our basic underlying assumptions and ensure they’re aligned across the team, we have to engage in feedback. We have to create a culture where people are willing to talk about what they’re really thinking, challenge those thoughts, and find out where the overlap is with their peers.
A culture that’s built on feedback — the honest, rigorous exchange of beliefs and ideas — far outlasts a culture that hinges on office or experiential perks. Free lunches, massages in the office, ping pong tables… Those artifacts, while pleasurable, are only surface-level. A culture of feedback is what ultimately enables a team to perform its best.
While creating a culture of feedback is a nuanced process that can take months (or years!) to fully cement, here are seven tips to get you started:
Learn to give constructive feedback. It seems simple and straightforward, but it’s often difficult, and many managers admit to pushing off the tough conversations or sugar-coating feedback.
Deliver the bad news. Believe it or not, it makes you a better leader. It helps you engage with your team more and tell them what they actually want to hear.
Effectively prepare for one-on-one meetings. Don’t short-change yourself or your employees by phoning in these important conversations. Prepare questions to ask to better focus the meeting, which is a critical component of a feedback culture.
Close the feedback loop. If you want to be a good manager, you can’t just make the call. You have to also explain it.
Go first. You can’t expect your co-workers to be open with you if you’re not open with them. You’re the leader, so it’s important that you set the right tone in a feedback culture by not being afraid to dive in.
Want to learn more about how you can cultivate a feedback culture at your company? Bring The Feedback Loop workshop to your company — a hands-on, half-day experience that I personally deliver to your team. No one else. Learn more here.
Are you struggling with how to unlock honest feedback from employees? Here are six ways to get the employee feedback you need to hear.
Feedback is critical to getting great work done. When you get honest feedback, it helps you make better decisions, it helps employees do their best work, and it helps you be a better leader.
Yet the same time, it’s far from easy to always unearth the employee feedback you really need to hear. Here are some tips to help get you started:
Dive in first. You’re the leader. You can’t expect coworkers to be open and honest with you unless you’re open with them first. If you open with something you’ve been struggling with, you set the tone that employees, too, can share areas where they may need some help.
Use key words. Our research has found that asking for “advice” unlocks honest feedback. Interestingly enough, asking for specific “feedback” doesn’t have the same impact as asking for advice. Keep this in mind during your next one-on-one.
Zero in on targeted questions. As a leader, asking specific questions is your most underrated management tool. Unless you want to hear the response, “fine,” don’t ask “how’s it going?”
Ask these four questions. You can’t get good feedback without asking good questions. Here are four to ask every employee, whether that means during a coffee chat or incorporating them into your next one-on-one.
“Handle the truth,” or, at least, get a handle on the truth. Having an honest, open one-on-one conversation with an employee is the most effective way to get to the truth.
Avoid the temptation to solicit anonymous feedback. In fact, avoid it at all costs. Anonymous feedback can easily backfire, it breeds a culture of distrust and it’s difficult to act on.
Looking for even *more* practical ways to get feedback from your team, and create a culture of feedback? Check out our in-person, hands-on workshop 👉 “The Feedback Loop.” We still have a few spots left for our May 17th workshop session — reserve your spot today.
Join us on May 17th at Basecamp HQ in Chicago — you’ll learn practical techniques for how to give, receive, ask for, and act on feedback well, alongside managers, executives, and CEOs from all over the country (if not the world!). We’re offering a limited number of early bird tickets for $100 off til April 13th 😊 Previous workshops have sold-out, just as a heads up… Look forward to seeing you there!
“How do you create a culture of feedback within your team?”
I’ve been on the hunt to answer that question for the past four years. After collecting data from over 15,000 employees in 25 countries, we finally have an answer — a playbook for how to create an open, honest workplace culture.
We shared this playbook at our very first workshop last March. Since then, I’ve given this workshop to managers, executives, and CEOs from Arkansas to New Zealand.
This May, I’m excited to bring the workshop back to Chicago.
During our half-day hands-on session, we’ll take you through:
Why leaders are constantly the last to know things in their company
The top leadership blindspots are and how you can avoid them
How to uncover your own leadership blindspots
How to get honest feedback, especially from your most introvertedemployees
The best questions to be asking every single employee in your company
How to hold an effective one-on-one with an employee
How to receive feedback without getting defensive
What to do with feedback you disagree with
How to tell what feedback to act on
What to do with feedback once you receive it
How to break bad news to your team
How to give employee feedback without damaging morale
The components of building an open, honest company culture
…and more. It’s an intimate session, with a limited number of managers, executives and CEOs, led by me, Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Company. No one else. We don’t hire anyone out to facilitate our workshops — we believe in sharing our expertise, experience, and data, ourselves firsthand.
You’ll walk away with techniques, best practices, and a toolset you can put into practice starting the next day.
But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what a few managers who attended our previous workshops had to say about their experience…
“Managers! This workshop was one of the best things I’ve ever done for my professional development. You should sign up.” — Caro Griffin, Director of Operations at Skillcrush
“The workshop was valuable and fun. 100% worth every penny, including the trip out to Chicago.” — Sarah Park, Operations Advocate at MeetEdgar
“Claire did an incredible job — I feel super fortunate to have been able to attend.” — Samantha Lueders, Product Owner at University Tees
If you’ve always struggled to give negative feedback to your team, this is for you.
“I love giving negative feedback at work,” said no one ever. Unless you enjoy causing people to be angry, upset or hurt — chances are you don’t like giving difficult feedback. We squirm, postpone, or avoid having to relay hard truths, all together. No one is proud to tell an employee else that their work is subpar. No one looks forward to sharing that they’re making the team look bad in front of the client. No one likes to be made out to be the bad guy or gal.
“I’ve always struggled with giving critical feedback,” admitted one of our Watercooler members, from our online community of 500+ leaders. “I have been delaying giving critical feedback for a long time, and it is causing team chemistry problems. I need to right the ship.”
How do you right the ship? Especially, if you’re known as the positive nice guy or gal in your company (which this manager acknowledged he was), how do you make the shift to start giving constructive feedback more regularly?
I’ve written extensively on this topic before, spoken on the subject, and given workshops on it — but I thought I’d extract from it all what I see as the most useful phrases for giving negative feedback for folks to use in their day-to-day.
Hopefully, armed with these phrases, you can ease yourself into giving negative feedback more frequently and more naturally…
Ask permission to give feedback
When you have difficult feedback to give, ask if now (or another time) is good to give it. No one likes to be bombarded in the middle of their workday, or blasted on the spot without just a small heads up that a critique is coming. Here are a few phrases you can use to “ask permission”…
“Would you be open to hearing some quick feedback around a few things I noticed?”
“I heard a few things on a call the other day that I thought we could talk through together — would you be open to that?”
“Happen to have time later today to chat around a few things I saw?”
“Would you want to sit down and talk about different ways we can both improve?”
Regarding this last phrase, only use it if you genuinely want to talk about how you yourself can also improve.
Come from a place of Care
Make it clear the intention behind your feedback. This isn’t about tearing the other person down. You want the person to succeed. For example, you could say something like:
“I’m saying this because I believe in you and what you’re capable of…”
“I’m giving you this feedback want you to succeed…”
“This is important to me because I care about the company’s direction as a whole…”
Come from a place of Observation
Focus on the observable behaviors of what happened, not the personal characteristics of the person. This helps make the other person not as defensive in their reception of your comments, and also helps make it clear what you’d actually like to see changed.
“When you did ___, it made me feel ___…”
“Here’s what I observed…”
“Here’s what I noticed…”
“Here’s where I think there’s an opportunity to improve…”
For example, if you think a coworker wrote a sloppy email to the client, instead of saying: “I think you’re careless and sloppy”… you could say, “I noticed that in the email you wrote, there were a few mistakes that made me feel like the work careless .” See the difference?
Come from a place of Fallibility
Don’t forget that your feedback is only an interpretation of what you observed, and your own perspective of how things can improve going forward. Your perspective is not a universal truth. To make this clear to the other person, you can say something like:
“Is there anything I’m missing?”
“Is that how you saw things, or do you see things differently?”
“Is there anything I’m misinterpreting?”
“I’ve made this mistake before myself…”
“I may not have given you all the information…”
Only say the last two phrases if you indeed believe you’ve made the same mistake before, or if you think you’re partially at fault for not supporting this employee as well as you could have. No progress is made if you say these phrases and do not mean them 🙂
Come from a place of Curiosity
When you give feedback, it should feel like a conversation. No one likes being talked at. Your time to give feedback also as a time to listen to what the other person thinks, as well. To do this, you can simply ask…
“What do you think?”
“Was there anything that doesn’t seem clear to you?”
“What do you think both you and I should do to move forward?”
Helpful phrases aside, remind yourself that giving difficult, honest feedback is in the best interest of your team. Being a good leader requires at times hard and uncomfortable conversations. It’s a natural and not-so-glamorous part of being a leader. Remind yourself that this is part of the job, as painful as it is, and that you’re doing the right thing by telling the truth.
You may not love giving negative feedback, but these phrases will help you become better at it.
P.S.: Please feel free to share + give this piece 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😄 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)
Why sharing bad news makes you a more effective leader.
Sharing bad news is a good thing.
As a leader, you might not think it, at first. But it’s true. Leaders who are honest about the bad — just as much as the good — are better leaders.
But it’s not just me saying this. Research proves this.
In a 2013 study discussed in Forbes, researchers found that leaders who gave honest feedback were rated as five times more effective than ones who do not. In addition, leaders who gave honest feedback had employees who were rated as three times more engaged.
Employees yearn for this honest, corrective feedback. In a study shared in Harvard Business Review, 57% people preferred corrective feedback to purely praise and recognition. When further asked what was most helpful in their careers, 72% employees said they thought their performance would improve if their managers would provide corrective feedback.
In other words, people don’t just want to be patted on the back and told, “Good job.” Employees want the truth. They want to know: How can I be better? What can I change or improve?
I call this “The Bad News Advantage.” When you share bad news and honest feedback, you gain three advantages:
You become a better leader.
You engage your team more.
You’re saying what your employees want to hear.
Leaders who understand these benefits of “The Bad News Advantage” have a leg up over others.
However, despite how helpful sharing bad news and honest feedback can be, we as leaders avoid it like the plague.
In two other surveys published in Harvard Business Review, each of nearly 8,000 managers, 44% of managers reported that they found it stressful and difficult to give negative feedback. Twenty-one percent of managers avoided giving negative feedback entirely.
Sound familiar? 🙂 You may have found yourself avoiding giving negative feedback or sugar-coating your words to an employee, at some point. I know I have. Giving honest feedback can feel critical, unnatural and just flat-out uncomfortable.
Des had entered a one-on-one meeting, prepared to give honest feedback to an underperforming employee. In fact, he’d written down notes beforehand of what he wanted to say.
Then, he went into the meeting to deliver the feedback.
Upon leaving the meeting, Des looked back at his notes and realized he’d said the complete opposite to the employee. He’d minced his words, and dramatically softened what was supposed to be pointed feedback.
The employee walked away thinking he didn’t need to change anything he was doing — which was not what Des was thinking.
In that moment, Des, like many of us, had forgotten “The Bad News Advantage.” He’d forgotten that when you give difficult, honest feedback…
You become a better leader.
You engage your team more.
You’re saying what your employees want to hear.
Des is an incredibly self-aware leader to have recognized this himself. He clearly saw the lost opportunity to improve things with an employee, and has since made delivering honest feedback — no matter how bad it is — a priority as a leader.