Feedback: The Whole Truth (Almost)

Most good leaders appreciate feedback. They want to know how they are doing in the eyes of their stakeholders, and appreciate honest suggestions on what and how they can improve. Many believe that when they request feedback from their staff, peers, and manager that they will hear the unvarnished truth about their performance; seldom does that happen.

I encourage my clients to ask for feedback from others. Sometimes, I’m the one who has to break the bad news that unless certain conditions are right, they will NOT hear the whole truth. Even if the conditions are right, they still may not. This doesn’t mean that they should stop asking for feedback, it means that they just need to be aware that they may not get the full story from others.

This may have nothing to do with the leader who is asking; but it may have a lot to do with the fact that the leader is in a position of power. Or, it may be because the climate of the organization makes it hard for employees to feel comfortable giving their honest opinion. However, there are some things that you can do to provide the best chance of getting quality feedback when you ask for it.

Become calm and consistent in your behavior: Leaders who are volatile and “go off” without warning create fear. If you are this type of person, be aware that the messengers around you are afraid of being shot. Your chances of getting honest feedback are nil unless you change your behavior and become more calm and consistent in your responses.

Set the stage ahead of time with the person(s) you’d like feedback from. Ask them if they will observe you and provide feedback; let them know that this is important to you and you will treat their feedback seriously. If you wish, ask them to pay particular attention to a specific behavior you’d like them to observe.

Be specific about how you phrase the question when you ask for someone’s comments . With the right question, you will get a specific response. Instead of “How am I doing?” try, “What did you observe me doing when I requested the input the team gave on our new budgeting process?” and “Is there anything that I could have done better when I asked for the input?”

Accept responsibility for the feedback you hear. You may not agree, but what you heard is a perception of the person providing it. So even if you don’t agree, seriously consider what you will do to change the perception. Making excuses for your behavior will not foster future honest feedback.

Express gratitude to the person who gave you the feedback, no matter how hard it was to hear. You’ve been given a gift that will help you to be better at what you do.

Listening to feedback is hard, but it is essential to your success. Feedback can be encouraged if you are willing to prepare for it and accept it with grace.

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

32 comments on “Feedback: The Whole Truth (Almost)

  1. Mary I think that this is great information and feedback is super important for continuous improvement in a company or organization. I think my using these principles coworkers can improve communication in all areas of the work place not just for effective feedback.

  2. Thanks for the advice Mary Jo. I think its hard to really want to get feedback sometimes. Being calm and consistent is easier said than done for some. But know that if you’re asking for it, you’re gonna get it. Ultimately, one has to learn to value and appreciate the feedback honestly, and these tips won’t be as difficult. But this is a great list.

  3. Great post Mary Jo. I agree that feedback can be difficult to accept, especially when the feedback is negative. And it can be complicated to gather honest feedback from individuals that you oversee. However, I do believe that this dilemma can be minimized by encouraging an environment where both positive and negative feedback is appreciated and taken sincerely. It is critical to convey to those you oversee, that you too are open to feedback and understand the benefit of growing professionally from the input received. From personal experience, I truly appreciate the feedback from those I oversee and the colleagues that I have the opportunity to work with on a daily basis. I want to ensure that I am doing my absolute best at my job, and I take high consideration on the feedback of those around me to validate my work performance.

  4. Hi Mary,
    You couldn’t be more right about this one. It has to be one of the hardest situations I have ever dealt with. Up to this point in my career, I have never been honest to this type question at work. I think there are so many of us that avoid the slightest bit at confrontation with management. It’s comforting for a lot of us to stay of the radar. I fall into this category and probably promote the lack of communication on supervisor feedback. I realize that it’s easy for me to stay off the radar, but I’m not doing myself any favors by keeping my thought and suggestions to myself.
    Your suggestions for asking for feedback are great. It takes the pressure off of the employees and shares some of the burden with supervisors. I’m sure there are hundreds of supervisors who think they are doing the right thing when asking for feedback from their employees. The vague question pops up out of nowhere in the middle of an employee evaluation and most of us haven’t had a chance to phrase our answers in a PC manner… Being specific is an excellent tactic, I think it gives the employee a specific situation to analyze and provide thoughts or suggestions on.
    This post is more targeted towards managers requesting feedback than employees providing honest feedback. The ladder corresponds to my typical situation and I’d like to say I will take this advice and run with it but I would be lying… I do plan to gradually get more comfortable with speaking my mind when given the opportunity. Thanks for the advice!

  5. Honestly, it is the rare manager who accepts feedback well. It takes patience and great practice to just say “thank you”. Good for you, Carla, for asking for feedback!

  6. Mary Jo!

    I love it when you share feedback strategies! So of course I would love to add to your awesome post and great conversation. 🙂

    Asking for feedback is a very difficult thing to do, whether you are a manager or an employee. When I ask for feedback in difficult moments (I focus here because asking for feedback when things are great comes more easily), I carefully ponder:
    – what I want to achieve
    – what the potential comments could be
    – what specific questions I could ask
    – what are the consequences/risks if I don’t ask for feedback
    – what are the positive outcomes for asking for feedback
    – what I would do to communicate that I have heard the feedback

    In other words I carefully examine my feedback strategy and then decide how to move forward. Feedback is very important – “winging it” is not advisable!

    When you consistently ask for and follow through on feedback, the people around you will come to understand that you take feedback seriously (and that they will not be shunned for giving honest feedback)! Consistency and a well-thought out and executed plan can help you get more of the “truth”!


  7. Thanks for the great post. It’s a funny problem you bring up…I know as a manger that I sincerely want to hear what I’m doing wrong (as well as what I’m doing right), and I’m sure that our employees want to genuinely express their praise or issues with management. However, it puts that employee in such a horrible spot. They’re thinking; is the manager sincere? How is he/she going to react? Is this going to affect my job? And, from the manager’s point of view, it’s is very, very hard to hear negative feedback from your employees- even though a good manager sincerely wants to hear how they can improve. Being married as well as being in management, I know that a person’s initial gut reaction is to get defensive with any feedback- even if it’s true. To grow, however, you’ll need to honestly put aside this defensiveness in order to grow and to continue getting honest feedback from employees. Thanks for the great post!

  8. Hello Mary,
    Nice post.
    Could I change “listening to feedback” to “feeling feedback”?
    It is true that you don’t just need to listen what you are in others’ eyes. You’d better to feel their feedback by watching their expression, eyes, behavior, and feel their variance of tones, words, etc. You don’t need somebody tell you that she or he does not like your way directly in deed. You can get this feedback by their uncomfortable expression. In addition, it is also not necessary to tell others you don’t mind their feedback or suggestions. You can change your attitudes or behavior when you find feedback from others and be nice to receive others’ suggestions. After a period, everyone knows you are a person who is willing to accept your feedback so that all of them wants to tell you their opinions and feelings.
    I think this kind of way is better than that “How am I doing” directly.

  9. Hi Sonia,

    I am so pleased that you brought your feedback expertise to this post and our readers. You are right, reflection before action in this case is certainly a wise tactic, and I love the questions you’ve brought forward. Thank you.

  10. Patrick, your ideas about “feeling feedback” are excellent – as an adjunct for requesting feedback. Watching other’s tone, expression, body language, etc. is a good thing but it isn’t enough. Many people may misinterpret these gestures, and it doesn’t provide the kind of specific feedback that I advocate. The best leaders I know ask for specific feedback in a direct manner on a regular basis, and then take action on what they hear.

  11. I once read the following: speak without offending, listen without defending. It’s hard and especially in Mexico to receive feedback, bosses are way out of trends for a better management, that makes it diffcult to approach them with the intention of giving feedback. A shame really, but that’s the way it is.

  12. Mary Jo, these are some valuable actions that leaders can implement to gain a better understanding of their leadership role. Certainly, the act of obtaining feedback from those you lead can be challenging as it’s hard for people to offer constructive criticism to those above them. That’s why I think your first point of being consistent is key, as it will take time for your team members to truly feel at ease to let you know what you could be doing to be more effective in your role.

    I would also add that another thing leaders should do is follow-up with their employees after a period of time to get an assessment of how well they’ve been addressing the issues that were brought forth by their employees. This will not only show that leaders are listening to what’s being said, but that they are genuinely interested in continually improving their leadership for the benefit of those they lead.

  13. Tanveer, great point about follow up. Thanks for drawing attention to the question: “How do you know that you’ve improved in the eyes of your stakeholders if you don’t follow up?”

  14. Attitude is key when taking feedback. If you can say thank you and not take things so personal, feedback can be extremely helpful. Too many times we take it as a personal attack, when how much can we learn from people always praising us? I think it comes down to if we are determined to grow. If we are, be humble and bring on the feedback!

  15. Hi Scott, you bring up a good point. Even if we are asking for feedback, it is hard to take the negative kind and not be defensive. Thats one of the reasons why I suggest you “just say thank you”, particularly if you are feeling like you want to go on the attack.

    Wally, thank you. I am honored to have this post be one of your weekly selections!

  16. Feedback is good for every employee. But getting right feedback is difficult.I had done this when I was leading the project to get feed back from vendors and colleagues but not managers. We need to build trust with person who is giving feedback. There is always fear between management and employee. I had managers who were bad managers and leaders who never asked anyone’s opinion. I have seen some director making mistakes.

  17. Over the years, I have found that people (and bosses included) will give feedback, they find it difficult to give feedback that this sufficiently specific to be useful.

    to help facilitate the process (for both of them and me) I ask three questions.

    1. Is there anything that I do that you find particularly helpful and which you would like me to continue to do?
    2. Is there anything that I do that you find, makes your life unnecessarily difficult and which you would like me to stop doing? Before you answer, I need to tell you that are stolen give very careful thought to what you tell me, you need to know that I may feel it necessary to continue to do the thing you describe?
    3. Is there anything that I am currently not doing which you would find helpful or useful if I started to do?

    I have found that asking the three questions helps the person giving feedback to be more specific. It also helps me by providing me with an opportunity to understand what people want and providing an opportunity to ask “why”.

  18. Cameron, I love your questions. They add great value to the readers of this blog. When you get a chance to ask “why”, you are also helping them to clarify their reasoning for themselves – as well as for you.

  19. The post and the comments here are quite helpful – particularly the points about behavior and strategies for keeping feedback actionable. I do think there is a critical step that must happen before you see feedback. First, perform a self-assessment. If you can be critical of yourself before you ask others for input, then you have a gauge by which to measure the feedback you gather. You’ll start to see differences in how you perceive yourself and how others perceive you. Done well, this exercise really informs your actions, and how you follow up on feedback.

  20. Bill, this is a great suggestion. In fact, in the work I do, I always have the clients take Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and then have a “debrief” session on the results with me before we begin to gather feedback from others on my client. And we do this for the reasons you’ve cited. Thanks for the additional input!

  21. 5 ways to get the unvarnished truth about your performance…

    Make it easier for your team members to share useful feedback by asking specific questions, and accept responsibility for what they tell you, Mary Jo Asmus writes. “[E]ven if you don’t agree, seriously consider what you will do to change the percepti…

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