Feedback Is Like Socks: It's A Gift You Need, Maybe Not One You Want

Recently, I was talking to a good friend* about how to start this week's blog post, as I was a bit stuck on a relevant example. I explained to him that this week's blog was all about receiving end-of-year feedback from someone you manage. He said - with no hint of irony or self-consciousness - "I'm a great manager. I've never received feedback from my team."


Boom. Done. There was my opening.


The end-of-the-year brings some of the best conversations you can have as a manager (telling someone they’ve gotten promoted never gets old!) and some of the hardest (sharing with someone that they are not meeting expectations can be heartbreaking).


The traditional end-of-year performance review is obviously a great opportunity to take stock of an employee’s growth for the year, provide feedback and plan for how the employee can develop in the upcoming year.

But, as managers, we’ve likely been in the situation where we deliver an uplifting or wrenching review and we spend an hour celebrating, crying, dissecting, and reflecting with our employee. Five minutes left in the hour, we then ask “And what feedback do you have for me as a manager?” Nine times out of ten, the employee responds with:


  • “Nothing, you’re great!” or;

  • “Well, everything is good, but if I had to think of something, I think you could provide me more feedback.” or;

  • “It would be great if you could be a little bit clearer with expectations. But, no biggie because I know how busy you are, so it’s probably my fault.”

You then go on your merry way, incredibly proud of yourself for soliciting feedback from your team.


Well, here’s the deal: to be a great manager, you have to ask for feedback and provide the context, support, and openness to enable that feedback to be constructive, useful and honest (remember, it’s hard to give upward feedback and it’s your job as a manager to make that easier!). And, the end-of-year performance review is a perfect time to make sure you’re getting that feedback from your direct reports.


Before the how, let's get to the why. Why is it hard to receive feedback as a manager?


1. Our brain is biologically hard-wired to run away from negative feedback (even though it’s meant to be constructive!). Research shows that we subconsciously protect ourselves (think fight or flight) when something threatens us. Our brain automatically codes negative feedback as a threat to our social standing, acceptance in community, and identity(!). So, biologically it’s hard for us to rewire our primal instinct to defend or flee when constructive feedback comes our way. (NB: this is a great excuse to use when someone is accusing you of being defensive ;)







2. Overconfidence Bias: Our subjective confidence in our own abilities is far greater than our actual objective abilities (e.g., 90% of drivers believe they are better than the average driver). So, we think our managerial abilities are much better than the average (and thus, don’t like to hear the opposite!)


3. And remember Attribution theory?: We think our own short-comings are the result of the environment around us, not something we have control over. Therefore, we subconsciously make excuses when we fall short of expectations.



Okay - so it’s hard to hear constructive feedback. And, we didn’t even talk about all the ways it’s near impossible to speak up or speak out against someone in power or with authority. You get it. So how can you make it easier to get helpful, constructive feedback from your team?


Simple Ways To Never Again Be That Guy At The Beginning Of This Blog


1. Schedule a completely separate time for your upward feedback: don’t jam it in at the end of your employee’s performance review. Separate the two meetings. It emphasizes that you care just as much as hearing their feedback as you do about providing your feedback to them. And, it separates their performance from your feedback (it’s scary to “critique” your boss right before you get your bonus!)


2. Make upward feedback part of the review of your employee: praise (and reward) constructive and courageous upward feedback from your employees. Let your employee know if they’re not meeting expectations with regards to giving you feedback (and support them in learning how to give effective feedback!).


3. Build formal upward feedback into all managers’ performance reviews. I like to ask all direct reports a simple five question survey (I do it anonymously just knowing how hard it is to provide constructive, upward feedback):


  • This person as my manager provides me consistent and helpful feedback to aid in my development. (1 to 5 scale)

  • This person as my manager makes him / herself always available to me when I need him / her. (1 to 5 scale)

  • Given what I know of this person’s management, I would always want him or her to be my manager. (1 to 5 scale)

  • What is one thing your manager could do to make your job easier?

  • Is there anything else you would like to add that would be helpful for your manager to develop?

4. And the last thing to enable great feedback from your team? Truly listen when the feedback is given and be open to your team members’ perspectives and ideas about how you can improve. Seek suggestions on specific, actionable ways you can improve and ask your team members to hold you accountable in your improvement.


The Wall Street Journal recently talked about how the best bosses are humble bosses. Humility allows us to be aware of our own weaknesses and then seek to improve on them. So, as you close out the year with your team, make sure to provide space, time and structure to get honest, constructive feedback from your team. And, most importantly, think about how you can provide that space and structure throughout the following year, so that your team’s upward feedback to you is timely and constant!


TL;DR

  • The end-of-year performance review with your team is an opportunity to get feedback about your capabilities as a manager.

  • It’s hard to hear your short-comings, especially from those people you manage, because we think we are more skilled and capable than we actually are.

  • Additionally, we are biologically hard-wired to run from or defend against things that are negative or threatening: constructive feedback is often threatening to our ego; hence we often become defensive.

  • To encourage more feedback from your team, you can formalize upward feedback into your own performance review, and the performance reviews of your team members.

  • Lastly, providing the proper space and context to solicit upward feedback – i.e., during a meeting that is separate from your employee’s performance review – will help you to get honest, constructive feedback.

*Like the NYTimes White House OpEd, the source of this story may never be known, but it's always fun to guess!

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