The tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes reflects a well-known truth about leadership. The higher up you go, the less likely you are to get useful honest feedback.
Why? The level at which you lead correlates with the power you’re perceived to have. People often fear the power of those who control their livelihoods, so they’re afraid to tell you the honest truth about your leadership. Without the honest truth, self-awareness — a critical step in the learning process — suffers.
It’s up to you to create an environment and develop relationships that allow you to get honest feedback. The benefits go well beyond the feedback itself. Relationships are the tools for getting things done and the higher up you go, the truer this is.
Asking for and graciously receiving feedback is one of the best ways to strengthen relationships at work. These seven tips will help you get honest feedback in a way that builds trusted relationships.
1. Emphasize honesty. Otherwise, conversations will likely to remain on the surface, when a deep dive would be more helpful. Ask people to:
- Be honest and not hold back
- Stretch beyond the established honesty zone of your relationship
- Talk about what you do and don’t do well
- Provide examples of what you do and the effect it has on them and others
- Talk about what you can do differently in the future
2. Adopt a journalist mindset. Imagine you’re conducting an interview about a third person. You’re after information that will enrich your story about him or her. It’s not your place to share your own point of view or to sway the interviewee.
3. Ask open-ended probing questions. Avoid questions that require a “Yes” or “No” response, because that’s exactly, and only, what you’ll get. Instead of “Do I lose credibility when….” try “What am I doing that’s causing me to lose credibility?”
4. Listen openly. If you get defensive, justify your actions or critique the feedback, people will shut down, as well they should. They are giving you a gift and taking a risk in doing so. It’s natural to feel defensive, justify your actions, evaluate the feedback and the feed-backer. But you don’t have to act on those thoughts and feelings. Notice when they come up and watch as they float downstream, out of sight and out of mind. Rinse and repeat when the defensive thoughts and feelings return.
5. Take notes. Pausing to write demonstrates that you value what’s being said and can prevent you from being defensive, justifying, evaluating or responding in some other way that shuts down honest and helpful feedback. It also provides space, by way of silence, for your feed-backer to offer even deeper and more honest feedback
6. Show appreciation. Remember how powerful you’re perceived to be. People are taking a risk as they offer open and honest feedback. Thank them.
7. Follow up. Send a note outlining what you learned, what you intend to do and ask for any help you might need. At the very least, ask your feed-backers to be spotters who let you know when you’re improving, or falling back on old habits.
People who check back in with their feed-backers over time, versus those who don’t, are rated as achieving greater gains in the areas identified for growth.