Promoting Mental Fitness and Workplace Culture

How to Encourage Your Team to Give You Honest Feedback

Far too often, team members expect to be given downward feedback, but unless they’re explicitly invited to offer upward feedback, they won’t know that it’s even an option. As a manager, it’s your job to ask your employees for feedback on your own performance. How else will you know what you should keep doing and what you should be doing differently? Nevertheless, you might find that your direct reports are reluctant to give you the feedback you need to improve, or even sustain, what’s working. This article addresses five common barriers that managers face in getting helpful feedback from direct reports, and how to address them so that you can gain the insights you need.

If you’re a manager, it’s not enough to be giving feedback to your direct reports. It’s part of your job to solicit feedback from your direct reports as well. As much as you might believe that you know your strengths and weaknesses well, without external self-awareness — an understanding of how what you say and do impacts others — you’re unlikely to improve the habits, behaviors, and practices that may be holding you (or others) back.

This external self-awareness comes from asking others (especially those who report to you) to share how they experience you. How else will you know what you should keep doing and what you should be doing differently?

Nevertheless, you might find that your colleagues are reluctant to give you the feedback you need to improve, or even sustain, what’s working. Here are five common barriers you might face in getting helpful feedback from your direct reports, and how to address them so that you can gain the insights you need.

1. Worrying about whether you’re even open to feedback.

Far too often, team members expect to be given downward feedback, but unless they’re explicitly invited to offer upward feedback, they won’t know that’s even on the table.

What to do: Tell your direct report that you’re not only open to feedback, but that you want and expect it. One way to frame it is to share that self-improvement is a personal and professional commitment you’ve made to yourself — and ask for help meeting your commitment. Ask, “Would you please help me keep the commitment I’ve made to myself?” That way, your direct report can view their feedback as helping you make good on a promise you’ve made to yourself.

2. Apprehension about “doing it right.”

Giving feedback adeptly is a skill that needs to be learned. If your employees haven’t learned how to do it well — perhaps because they haven’t had access to training, practice, or role models — then they may resist doing it at all.

What to do: Let your direct report know that feedback is a skill best learned through practice — a great development opportunity for themselves — and that you’d like to give them the opportunity to practice with you. Assure them that they don’t have it do it “right.” They just have to show a willingness to try, and to try to get better over time. It can also be helpful to remind them that learning any new skill goes through four stages:

  1. Unconscious incompetence (“I don’t know that I don’t know how to do this well.”)
  2. Conscious incompetence (“Now I know that I don’t know how to do this well.”)
  3. Conscious competence (“Now I know that I do know how to do this well.”)
  4. Unconscious competence (“I am doing this well without even thinking about it.”)

Remember to acknowledge and celebrate their skill development as it progresses.

3. Fear of retaliation.

Let’s face it: You’re in a position of power. You have access to resources that are important to your direct report. They may worry that giving you feedback could interfere with their future opportunities. In addition, in some cultures, giving feedback “up” the hierarchy is simply not done. It would be seen as disrespectful and insubordinate. Be aware that these cultural norms can be a significant barrier.

What to do: Demonstrate empathy and humility. Try saying something like, “I know that it can feel uncomfortable to give feedback to someone who has a say in what you work on, your career advancement, etc. I have had the same concerns in giving feedback to my boss. Let me reassure you that I see your willingness to give me helpful feedback — even if it’s negative — as one of your professional assets. I know that I can get better, and I want to.”

4. Concern about hurting your feelings.

You’re only human, right? And feedback — especially when not delivered skillfully — can activate feelings of social rejection. Your direct report may be understandably worried about hurting you and the relationship.

What to do: Demonstrate your self-awareness by taking the lead in giving yourself constructive feedback first, which can mitigate their fears. You might say, “I know that I tend to be slow and methodical in my work, often prioritizing accuracy over action. Others have shared with me that they find my style hard to work with, especially when they’re facing a tight deadline. I’d like to get better at that. Would you share what you’ve experienced?” And then, once you have them talking, you can ask, “And is there anything else I could be working to improve right now that would make your work easier?”

5. Suspicion that nothing will change as a result of the feedback.

Giving feedback is hard, but giving feedback that doesn’t result in anything improving is even harder. Soliciting feedback without addressing it and taking action on it quickly erodes trust, as it undermines your sincerity and reliability.

What to do: Tell your direct report what you plan to do with the feedback they give you. This might range from, “I appreciate you telling me this — and I’m not sure I can address it right now. Here’s why…” to “This is very helpful, and I am going to take action to change this behavior. Here’s my plan…” And in both cases, keep actively, openly, and assertively inviting them to give you feedback.

One final thought: As much as you might believe that you have created safe and welcoming conditions for your direct report to give you feedback, don’t penalize them for not doing so. The complexity of the power imbalances, the differences between what you and they might consider “safe and welcoming,” as well as prior negative experiences they may have had giving feedback in the past (that may have nothing to do with you) may make this harder for them than you’ve imagined.

Nevertheless, do what you can to make sure you’re getting the feedback you need to grow and succeed. In the words of business executive Pamela Gill Alabaster: “Continuous learning leads to continuous improvement. Commit yourself to advancing your knowledge, skills, and expertise…Be a lifelong student.”

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