How to Get Better Feedback as a Manager

It Doesn’t Need to be Awkward

Jake Wilder
Aug 12, 2020 · 6 min read

If you’re trying to improve your performance through employee exit interviews, it’s not going to work out well.

For one, it’s a very lagging metric. Like American health care, you’ll spend significantly more money on recovery than if you’d invested a fraction of the amount into prevention.

But more importantly, people don’t use them to give honest feedback. There’s limited upside for someone to be candid. Even if the company listens to the feedback and makes changes, they won’t be there to see them. And the potential risk of burning their bridges is relatively high.

So people hold back. They say that they’re leaving for career advancement reasons and not because their manager is a worthless sack of crap.

This risk isn’t specific to exit interviews. It’s present any time someone decides to either give some honest feedback or sugarcoat the message. And this risk goes up dramatically when we ask employees to give candid feedback to their boss.

We tend to think that receiving feedback can be tough. But it’s nothing compared to the difficulty in providing honest criticism of someone who can hold it against you.

What if the boss doesn’t want to hear it? What if she’s not interested in your thoughts? What if she’s offended to the point that she sabotages your career? The potential consequences range from being a waste of time to a career-limiting disaster.

Managers need to recognize this risk. It’s a reminder that no matter what we’d like to believe, there’s a good chance that we’re not getting honest feedback within our organization.

But if we want to keep improving, we do need that candor. As managers, we can’t allow receiving feedback to become a passive activity. It would be great if we could just go about our day and employees would feel comfortable enough to bring up any concerns without a prompt. But reality rarely lives up to our expectations. Instead, we need to create the environment that will encourage this honest criticism.

The good news is that this isn’t difficult. It really just comes down to three things:

  1. Acknowledge your weaknesses.

Acknowledge Your Weaknesses.

“Any successful feedback system is built on empathy, on the idea that we are all in this together, that we understand your pain because we’ve experienced it ourselves.” — Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.

Before people will provide honest feedback, they want to know that you’re open to hearing their input. And one of the best ways to demonstrate this is by acknowledging your own weaknesses.

When you tell people about the areas that you struggle, you encourage them to offer advice on how to improve. It also shows people that you realize you can be wrong — and you want to hear about it when you are.

I tend to be risk-tolerant in evaluating new business opportunities. I’m also overly aggressive in establishing plans and will take on new commitments without thinking through the necessary trade-offs.

By telling my employees about these struggles, it invites them to keep me in check. They’re quicker to call me out if I start to trivialize the potential risks of a new opportunity. But they’re also more likely to share feedback in other areas as well.

Once you show the desire to improve in one area, it makes you more approachable in other areas. You’ve shown that you recognize the fact that you can be wrong from time to time. And more importantly, you expect people to help you recognize it.

Ask Specific Questions.

“Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet.” — Krista Tippett, On Being

Consider things from your employee’s point of view. Your boss gives you a broad feedback request like, “Do you have any feedback for me?” Or, “What can I do better?”

You’re on the spot. It’s a vague question. And unless something obvious just happened, you’re likely to respond by saying, “No, everything’s fine.”

As Tim Ferriss is fond of saying, “Life punishes the vague wish and rewards the specific ask.” If you want specific, worthwhile feedback, it helps to ask specific, worthwhile questions.

Instead of the canned questions that most managers ask, consider something more specific. Feel free to borrow one of the below or create your own to fit the situation.

  • If you were in my position, what’s one thing that you would do differently?

It can be awkward to ask employees for their direct feedback. And if it’s too awkward, you’re less likely to do it. So find questions that you’re comfortable asking. Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, suggests starting with a “go-to question.” To kick things off, she asks people, “Is there anything I could do or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me?”

The point is to get the conversation going and show people you’re interested in their feedback. Don’t worry; it gets less awkward with time. And more importantly, remember that it’s more awkward for your employees than it is for you.

Take Action to Improve.

“Nature takes away any faculty that is not used.” — William R. Inge

I once had a boss that would ask for feedback. And then if you told him anything, he’d spend the next hour telling you why you’re wrong. It didn’t take long before no one had any suggestions to offer.

People repeat behavior that’s recognized. So the best way to increase your feedback is by showing people that you appreciate it. And the best way to do that is by taking some action based on their suggestion.

If you agree with someone’s feedback, do something about it. Give people a clear sign that you took their thoughts to heart and you’re working on making an improvement. If it will take time to demonstrate the change, do something visible to show them you’re working on it.

And if you disagree, recognize that they still perceived your behavior that way. Talk through it with them. Understand their perspectives. Even if you disagree with someone’s interpretation, it’s still your job to manage it.

Either way, remember that people took a risk in being candid with you. Recognize and appreciate that honesty. Otherwise, don’t expect it again next time.

And try to avoid coming across as defensive. I know, easier said than done. But defensive people don’t learn. Which means they don’t improve. And no has any interest in giving someone feedback unless they’re going to use it to improve.

Start Increasing Your Feedback Today

“It takes humility to seek feedback. It takes wisdom to understand it, analyze it, and appropriately act on it.” — Stephen Covey

It would be wonderful if everyone was candid and provided clear, actionable feedback the moment they saw a poor behavior. It would make things much easier.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen. And it especially doesn’t happen for most managers. Not without an investment to encourage that level of candor.

Acknowledge your weaknesses. Ask specific questions. And make sure that you take action where you can. If you can do that, it makes it a lot easier for your employees to provide their honest opinions.

There’s no better way to improve

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