Getting Staff Feedback: Do You Dare?

Are you willing to find out how you're doing as a leader? Do you have the courage to ask your staff for honest, no-holds-barred feedback? Are you ready to take a risk in exchange for some major learnings?

Many companies have adopted formal 360-degree feedback programs. (The term "360-degree feedback" refers to a process of obtaining feedback, typically through anonymous questionnaires, from those all around you in the organization: bosses, peers, and direct reports.) Executives and managers in those companies may not relish the experience of receiving feedback from their staffs, but they certainly learn a lot. By paying attention to the feedback, leaders can make significant improvements in their effectiveness.

Using a consultant

What can you do if your company doesn't provide such a program? You can of course hire a consultant to collect the information for you. There are advantages to having an expert gather the information, interpret it for you, and guide you in deciding what to do about it.

For example, when I collect feedback for clients I use interviews rather than questionnaires. By probing for details and gathering specific examples of leadership behaviors, I am able to draw out a more detailed picture of the executive's strengths and developmental needs.

Doing it yourself

Using a consultant is not absolutely necessary. For adventuresome leaders, getting their own feedback can be a challenging and rewarding experience. Assuming you're already getting feedback from your boss (and if you're not, why haven't you asked for it?), feedback from your staff will be particularly useful.

Here are the steps

Exploring feedback with your staff

Here's a way to get more input from your staff as a group while maintaining their anonymity.

  1. Before the meeting, post on a flipchart the key questions
    you have about the feedback. For example, "Can you give examples of my being overly authoritarian?"
  2. At the meeting, first review the feedback. Then post the questions you prepared. Ask the group to answer your questions while you're out of the room. Have them write their answers on a flip chart.
  3. When you return, have them review their answers with you. Ask questions for clarification only. Listen! Don't be defensive!
  4. Thank them for their input.

Here is a simplified step-by-step approach to getting staff feedback.

  • Announce to your staff your intention to develop your leadership skills.
    Tell them one way you're going to do this is to collect their perceptions of your leadership skills. Anonymously. This last point is critical to ensure honest responses.
  • Find or create a suitable questionnaire.
    Talk to human resource specialists, colleagues, or consultants to locate a questionnaire that deals with the leadership skills or behaviors you want to survey. Most forms include questions with rating scales that cover the basic leadership behaviors. If you don't find a form that works for you, make up a simple questionnaire. Either way, consider adding some open-ended questions at the end:
    • What does my boss do that helps me do my job as well as possible?
    • What does my boss do that gets in the way of my doing my job as well as possible?
  • Find a person to compile the results.
    Find someone to whom completed questionnaires can be sent for compilation. Ideally, this will be someone outside the organization to ensure staff member's anonymity (some employees worry that an insider will recognize their handwriting). Include a pre-addressed and stamped envelope with the questionnaire.
  • Review the feedback.
    Take a deep breath and see what you've got. Look first at your high scores - your strengths-and take satisfaction in what you're doing well. Then examine the low scores and notice where you could do better. Be alert to the all-too-human tendency to be defensive-to deny the feedback, or see it as flawed or mistaken. Remember the one-percent rule: Even if you're absolutely convinced that any given piece of feedback is completely off-base-assume at least one percent of it is true.
  • Meet with your staff.
    Review the feedback with your staff (see sidebar). Ask them for elaboration or examples on any feedback that's not clear. Listen, and take it in. Whatever you do, don't be defensive or attempt to explain away the feedback. You could end up doing more harm than good.
  • Decide what to work on.
    Pick two or three significant areas where you're willing to make changes. Set goals for the changes you want to make, and periodically monitor your progress. Tell your staff what you've decided to work on (they'll love you for it!), and ask for their support.

Getting feedback is a powerful tool for learning. Although there may be some short term discomfort involved, I know of no better way to begin the process of sharpening your skills as a leader.