11 Steps to Getting Honest Feedback as the Boss

It can be difficult to get honest feedback on your behavior, skills, and ideas from those who work for and with you when you are a leader. The higher up you climb in an organization, the more valuable feedback tends to be. The problem is, the more power you have, the more difficult it is to get honest feedback. This presents a huge dilemma to leaders who want the honest truth about where they need to grow.

To get to the essence of how you think, operate, and are perceived in the workplace, you will need multiple points of view, which means you will need to overcome this hurdle and figure out how to encourage candor from the people you work with.

Why It Is So Hard for Leaders to Get Honest Feedback

There are many reasons leaders have difficulty getting honest feedback. For starters, people may fear facing negative consequences of giving their boss, or someone in power, constructive feedback. This fear Is often reinforced when leaders receive feedback with defensiveness and ego. This is why so many people take the easy way out and are “yes” people, instead. They limit their responses to ways that please the boss to remain in good graces.

Plus, giving feedback is uncomfortable, and isn’t something that is generally taught. When something is unfamiliar or unknown, it becomes even more uncomfortable. Avoidance is how most people treat non-mandatory tasks that come with discomfort. Why bother? Or What’s in it for me? might be their narrative.

Put it all together, and it’s a tough sell to give your boss feedback when you don’t know how they’ll react and they have the power to make your life more difficult as a result. Better to keep my lips sealed to be safe, or just share the good feedback, says most direct reports when faced with the option of giving their boss some tough but honest feedback.

Indeed, feedback has a bad reputation. If you want honest feedback from your people, you have starting by changing its reputation.

Step 1: Change Feedback’s Reputation

In order to get the results you are looking for – in this case, getting honest feedback – you must begin by shifting how feedback is perceived.

If you can convince your team to view all forms of feedback as a gift, you will succeed in changing its reputation and garnering candor among your people.

Positive Feedback

This one is easy to see as a gift: Comments like, “Nice haircut” or “Great presentation” give us a dose of confidence mixed with dopamine. Easy to give and take.

Constructive Feedback

The reputation of what is normally known as constructive feedback is what needs to change. Some people even refer to this as negative feedback, but the truth is that it can also be a gift – as it provides us with an opportunity for a blind spot to see the light of day, exposing it and offering you an opportunity to grow in way you couldn’t have, had you not heard the feedback.

In order to change constructive feedback’s reputation for the better – you must treat it as a gift – both in giving it and receiving it. This means you must offer it with generosity and receive it with appreciation – no matter how much discomfort it causes you on either side. If you are accustomed to responding to feedback with defensiveness, blame, and justification, this may be a difficult shift for you. You must model what it looks like to embrace feedback with an open mind, an open heart, and open arms.  “Thank you so much,” need to be practiced and used liberally in response to someone offering you the gift of feedback.

Necessary Shifts:

  • Embrace: An attitude of generosity, growth mindset, and curiosity – and language to mirror the attitude.
  • Leave behind: Defensiveness, ego, denial

Adam Grant, organizational psychologist at Wharton, summed it up best when he said, “The best way to get honest feedback is to reward people for giving it. If you make it hard to tell you the truth, people take the easy way out. When people have the courage to be candid, you can reinforce it with gratitude and curiosity.”

Step 2: Build Psychological Safety on Your Team

In order for honest feedback to get routed to the boss, the people who work for you must trust you. They must feel safe enough to speak up in earnest. They must trust that the feedback will be taken in the vein it was offered – as fodder for learning. They must trust that they will not be penalized in any way for offering constructive feedback or ideas for improvement. They must trust that there is no risk in sharing and telling it to you straight. Therefore, getting honest feedback begins by building psychological safety and trusting relationships and team dynamics.

Amy Edmondson, researcher and professor of leadership at Harvard who also coined the phrase psychological safety, defined it here, “Psychological safety is the belief that the environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking. People feel able to speak up when needed — with relevant ideas, questions, or concerns — without being shut down in a gratuitous way. Psychological safety is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able, even obligated, to be candid.”

It would be naïve to think that you can get honest feedback from your team without psychological safety first. There are no shortcuts for building trust among humans, but you can direct your effort to building it on your teams. Read this article for eight of the most important pillars of psychological safety, and how to build them.

Step 3: Align on a Shared Purpose for Feedback on Your Team

Talk openly with your team about the value of feedback in an effort to embed it into your organization and team culture. Make sure everyone on the team understands your belief that feedback is an important function of a growth mindset, and a growth mindset is essential to high-performance teams. Simply put, feedback makes it easier to learn.

Make sure your team also understands what feedback is and how it can be used. Feedback can relate to your tendencies and behaviors, such as communication, relationship, or leadership skills. This may be about how you spoke to someone in a meeting, how you tend to handle stress, or related to your leadership style. Feedback may also relate to shorter-term situations, such as decisions, ideas, projects, or presentations. This type of feedback tends to be a bit more concrete, less personal, and therefore easier to deliver. Make sure to clarify and embrace both types of feedback on your team.

If everyone on your team is clear that the purpose of feedback is to learn and grow, it becomes much less scary to give feedback – even when it’s to your boss.

Step 4: Decide Who You Want Honest Feedback From

Even with all of the foundation setting you do, there will still be people who won’t be able to be honest with their boss. This is a function of how power dynamics can work among different personalities and relationships. You probably have some ideas about who’s who on your team.

Consider this as you decide who to request feedback from. The intention is to garner feedback from a broad range of trustworthy thinkers, roles, and perspectives so you can get a full picture of you as a leader, and your ideas, skills, decisions, and approaches. But you want to ask those who you think are most willing to offer you candor. This means you don’t want to include those who will say things just to make you feel good; you want to choose people you know will be honest with you, even when it means telling you something you don’t want to hear (but need to hear it.)

Here are some ideas on who might be able to give you feedback from various vantage points – this list goes for both formal and informal feedback processes. Your list will shift depending on the nature of the feedback you are seeking

  • Your boss
  • Your colleagues
  • Your direct reports
  • Vendors, partners, collaborators
  • Colleagues from past and current companies
  • Mentors or people in a role or area you are aspiring to grow into
  • Those you attended school with
  • Those who know you well in your industry
  • Those who know you well in a different industry
  • Someone who is at least 15 years older than you
  • Someone who is at least 15 years younger than you
  • An executive coach
  • Friends and family who know you well, (as long as they are not too personally invested in the types of challenges you need feedback on.)

Step 5: Ask for Honest Feedback Regularly

This step may sound obvious – and it is. However, it is not easy, and you can’t just skip to this step if the foundation is not in place. If you already have high psychological safety on your team, a strong learning culture among your people, and trusting relationships, it’s possible you can start here. However, know that this is rare.

Asking for feedback can be scary – it requires leaders to be vulnerable, admit they do not have all the answers, and acknowledge they have work to do. When you request feedback, it is important to reiterate and underscore the purpose of the feedback (step #3) for the highest likelihood of getting honest responses.

Then you can request feedback the old fashioned way, through conversations either one-on-one or in a group setting – and make this a consistent habit. There are plenty of ways to do this, and your approach may shift from day to day and week to week, depending on your relationships and each situation.

For example, if you are looking for feedback on your leadership behaviors and skills, this is often better to do in a more intimate one-on-one setting. You can plan this into your regular one-on-one meetings in an effort to make this the norm and solicit consistent feedback. When you sit down with your direct reports, leave time to ask them how you could be a better manager for them or leader in the organization. Or request feedback on a recent idea, challenge, or situation. Making this part of your agenda will set an expectation in your relationship.

If you are looking for feedback on an idea, solution, or decision from many perspectives, try making your request in a group or team discussion. When doing this, it’s best to pitch your proposed plan or idea in a neutral way and save your opinions or commentary for the end so as not to sway any feedback from entering the conversation.

Step 6: Launch an Informal Feedback Process

This is still asking for feedback, but in a more formal way than a conversation and less formally than a full-blown 360-degree feedback process. Here, you can launch an informal feedback process on your own over email, and get it started in under an hour.

Start by selecting five to 10 people whose opinions you respect. Include diverse relationships and personalities (see step #4).

Then, make sure to explain the context and purpose for them – this is reiterating your language from step #3. You will want to emphasize how much you will appreciate their candid, honest feedback so you can get a full picture of your strengths and blind spots. Explain that you will be using the responses to help you develop your leadership skills. In any way you can think of, you really want to encourage those involved to be open and honest, even when it may sting.

Decide on five questions to ask and email them to everyone you have chosen. It’s helpful to email everyone the same questions so you can compare responses. Here are some sample questions:

  • What are my strengths? What do you think I’m naturally good at?
  • What specific qualities, abilities, or behaviors do you think I should improve on that would help me be more successful?
  • What is the quality or qualities that you most admire about me?
  • How would you describe my leadership style?
  • What is my superpower?
  • What traits / qualities do I bring to relationships?
  • What are my blind spots? What are the biggest areas that hold me back?

Step 7: Have Someone Else Ask for You

If you work with an executive coach or an HR team, they may be able to initiate a comprehensive 360-degree feedback process for you. These are designed to gather anonymous feedback from the people who work closest to a leader – and they have the highest likelihood of getting candid responses since they are anonymous.

In the 360-degree process I lead, I interview stakeholders, colleagues, direct reports, peers, and partners to get to the essence of how the leader I am coaching operates and is perceived in the workplace. This supports us in developing self-awareness and gaining a full picture of their strengths, development needs, and blind spots. I use this feedback to generate an anonymous summary report, which we use in our coaching to design a development plan. There are many other kinds of 360s that focus on the various aspects of leadership. For example, I lead one focused on emotional and social intelligence and another that can be customized according to the leader. Once we have a report in hand, together, we review the feedback, explore your relationship to feedback, and use the exercise and its findings to help you reach a higher level of performance and impact.

Step 8: Develop Feedback Loops

Feedback works both ways. Even though it is more traditionally common for feedback to roll downhill, you want to build an understanding on your team that it should go in all directions.

Start by creating processes on your team – one for giving productive feedback that is anonymous, and another for feedback that is transparent. Enroll your team for ideas on how the feedback processes might work and have them run point on implementation. Having your team collaborating on the creation of the feedback loops is essential to enroll them in the process.

Whatever feedback loops your team creates, you as leader should be the biggest power user of them all. Use the systems, actively seek feedback, and generously offer feedback whenever helpful and possible.

Step 9: Train on Feedback Delivery

As you put the feedback processes and systems in place, it’s important to ensure that your team knows how to deliver feedback effectively. This will have to be a separate article for another day, but it is worth noting that this is a learned competency. Consider hiring a coach to train your team on how to give and receive productive, constructive feedback in a disarming way – in a way that ensures it lands well with the other party.

Step 10: Reward for Feedback

Don’t forget to reward those who give you feedback. This can be as small as thanking someone for offering it as I’ve mentioned, but it can go much further than this. The more you reward people for giving you feedback, the more comfortable they will feel giving it.

For example, let’s say Tom on your team gave you some constructive feedback on your upcoming presentation. By publicly referencing the helpful feedback you got from Tom in a meeting or an email — and even sharing the improvements you made as a result — others will notice you are sincere about your pursuit of professional development. The more you reward the courageous feedback givers, the more people will notice and follow suit.

Step 11: Be an Advocate for Honest Feedback

If you are the one who is consistently championing feedback in team meetings, trainings, 1:1s, and even digital communication, your team will get the hint and follow suit. If you are the one who is receiving feedback with appreciation, giving feedback with compassion and candor, and modeling humility and comfort with the entire feedback process, you will influence your team to do the same.

That’s because as leader, you have a tremendous amount of influence on your team – much more than you realize. A leader’s mood, language, and attitude are contagious – so be mindful of how you use that influence. By showcasing your enthusiasm for honest feedback, acknowledging that you are not perfect and do not have all the answers, and demonstrating comfort with exposing your own blind spots, you are setting the tone for a humble, growth mindset among your team.

With practice, you can become more comfortable asking for, receiving, and leveraging direct feedback in the spirit of learning and development. If you haven’t already, with practice, you will begin to see feedback as a gift – not only an opportunity to grow, but also as a way to connect more deeply with others.

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Melissa Eisler

Melissa Eisler, MA, PCC, is an ICF certified executive coach. She partners with leaders to develop their systems thinking, resilience, strategic communication skills, and executive presence in order to reach individual, team, and organizational goals. She blends more than 15 years of experience in leadership positions in the corporate world, with her master’s degree in organizational leadership and extensive background in mindfulness to help her clients master their leadership skills and steer their teams through challenges and change. Learn more about Melissa here.

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Melissa is the founder and executive coach at Wide Lens Leadership and a Partner at Evolution. As an ICF Certified Executive Coach with a Master's degree in organizational leadership, Melissa has coached hundreds of leaders ranging from C-suite to entrepreneur, from Fortune 500 companies to startups, and across diverse industries. Her work focuses on helping high-performing senior leaders and their teams magnify impact by building trust, collaboration, accountability, and healthy communication skills.