When you’re managing a team, you want to do everything you can to ensure that you’re being the most effective manager possible. And while you may have your own ideas about how to make that happen, the people who are in the best position to help you reach your full potential as a manager are the people you’re managing — your direct reports.
“Honest feedback from direct reports is critical in that those individuals are likely the ones close enough to the manager’s decisions and behaviors to truly make a difference going forward,” said Merideth J. Thompson, PhD, professor in the Department of Management at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University.
The feedback you get from your direct reports can help to shape your management style, decision-making process, and the ways in which you interact with your team members. This kind of feedback can not only make you a better manager, but ultimately, it can also help to inspire a higher level of performance in your team. Below, we’ll take a closer look at some of the obstacles to getting honest feedback from your direct reports — and how to overcome them to get the feedback you need to excel in your role and bring out the best in your team.
Why It Can Be Challenging to Get Feedback from Direct Reports
Getting regular, honest feedback from your direct reports is a must if you want to grow as a manager and build high-performing teams. But as you move up in your career, getting the feedback you need can become increasingly challenging.
“As managers move up the corporate ladder, they are less and less likely to get honest feedback from their subordinates,” noted Thompson. “Managers tend to be protected — or kept in the dark — from bad news the higher they climb...Clearly this is problematic for an organization that wants to grow, improve, and be more profitable.”
One of the most common scenarios where it can be hard to get honest feedback from your direct reports is if your employees are worried that giving honest feedback to you could translate into negative consequences for them.
“Fear of retaliation is the number one reason why direct reports may be hesitant to give their managers honest feedback,” said Roberta Matuson, President of talent consultancy Matuson Consulting and author of Suddenly in Charge: Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around. “This generally occurs when the employee and the manager have not established a trusting relationship.”
“For direct reports to be honest in their feedback to a manager, the report needs a deep sense of trust in that manager — and [has to trust] that the manager will not react poorly or retaliate based on the feedback,” Thompson said.
Direct reports may also be hesitant to give feedback to managers “because their experience has shown them that no matter what they say, nothing will change,” said Matuson. “So [they may think], ‘Why bother?’”
Luckily, there are ways to address these concerns — and get the feedback you need in the process. Here are four expert strategies you can use to get honest feedback from your direct reports.
4 Tips for Getting Honest Feedback from Direct Reports
1. Focus on building relationships.
As mentioned, one of the biggest roadblocks to getting honest feedback from your direct reports is a lack of trust. So if you want to get more feedback from your team, a great place to start is by creating that foundation of trust by focusing on building stronger relationships with your direct reports.
As a manager, “you need to have solid relationships with the people you are interacting with,” said Matuson. “Take time to get to know people and allow them to get to know you. Work on your relationship daily so if the time ever comes when…[a direct report needs to deliver feedback], you’re well-positioned to have a productive conversation.”
How you build relationships with your direct reports is up to you. For example, you might schedule regular one-on-one meetings with each team member to provide a time and place to get to know each other better. Or, you could take a more active mentorship role with your team to help foster your employees’ career growth.
Exactly how you build trust and stronger relationships with your employees is less important than making it a priority. When you have strong relationships with your team members, they’ll feel more comfortable coming to you with honest feedback — feedback you can then use to be a more effective manager.
2. Explore different ways to gather feedback.
It doesn’t matter how strong your relationships with your direct reports are or how much trust exists between you and your team; for some team members, the thought of delivering honest feedback to your face (particularly if that feedback is challenging or hard to hear) can be tremendously anxiety-inducing.
And understandably so. Giving someone challenging, critical, or even constructive feedback in a face-to-face conversation can feel uncomfortable — particularly if that person is your supervisor. But as a manager, you still need to get that feedback from your direct reports, despite how stressful it may be for both parties. So if you suspect your team members aren’t comfortable giving you honest feedback to your face, “consider using an anonymous online survey to ask for feedback,” Thompson recommended.
Giving your employees the opportunity to deliver feedback anonymously is a win for you and your direct reports: You get the honest feedback you need to grow as a manager and lead your team more effectively, and your direct reports get to avoid the sometimes uncomfortable experience of delivering their feedback in person.
3. Follow up.
When your direct reports deliver honest feedback, it can take a while for it to fully sink in. In order to ensure that you understand their feedback — and show them that you’re taking it to heart — it’s a good idea to follow up once you’ve had a chance to process it.
“When you do get honest feedback, consider circling back to the direct report a few days later to ask some clarifying questions after you’ve had time to consider their insights,” Thompson advised. “This will help them know you value their perspective and that it’s not just safe to share with you, but helpful to the organization and/or team.”
If you’re unclear about any part of your direct report’s feedback, following up a few days later gives you an opportunity to get the clarity you need, and furthermore, to use your employees’ feedback to identify your own areas for growth. Just make sure to ask your clarifying questions with kindness and genuine curiosity, rather than defensively or antagonistically.
“If you need clarification, frame your request in a way that doesn’t put the other person on the [defensive],” Matuson said.
For instance, if your direct report gave you the feedback that you sometimes micromanage them on projects, but you’re not sure where and how you’re micromanaging, during your follow up, Matuson recommended beginning your request for clarification by saying something like, “Can you help me to better understand why you feel this way? Do you have a few examples that you wouldn’t mind sharing with me?”
Following up with your direct report shows them that you’re committed to understanding their feedback, and gives you the opportunity to get clarity if anything about their feedback is confusing or unclear.
4. Put the feedback into practice.
Getting feedback from your direct reports is only one part of the equation. If you want to continue getting the feedback you need to be an effective manager, you have to show your direct reports that you’re not only taking their feedback well, but also taking their feedback seriously — and that means putting it into practice.
“Don’t just go through the motions,” Thompson said. “Take their advice or insights and actually put those into practice.”
For example, if a direct report gives you feedback that your morning stand-up meetings are running too long, start setting a timer, and make sure to end the meeting as soon as the timer goes off. If you’ve gotten feedback that your management style is too harsh, make a conscious effort to be more friendly when dealing with that direct report (and your whole team in general), and continue to check in with your employee to ensure they feel you’re approachable as a manager.
When your direct reports see that their feedback is not only being heard, but implemented, it can inspire them to continue delivering honest feedback — which will make you and your team as a whole stronger.
Look at it from your employees’ perspective: It’s understandable that giving feedback to a boss could strike fear in their hearts. And as their manager, it might not always be comfortable to hear what your staff has to say. But it’s your job to put your team at ease so they’ll feel comfortable sharing their honest feedback with you. If some of the feedback you receive is difficult for you to hear, instead of being reactive in the moment, take a deep breath, thank your team member for their honesty and insight, and let them know that you’re going to take their comments into consideration and may get back to them in a few days with some follow-up questions.
It’s never easy to hear that there are things you could be doing better, but it’s necessary to set aside your ego and any hurt feelings to take in the feedback you receive from your direct reports and thoughtfully examine the areas in which you could improve. By looking at the bigger picture like this, you’ll be able to gather the insights you need from your employees and put them into practice, and as a result, become a better boss and leader in the process.