Why leaders want someone to tell them what they need to hear

Back in the day, my new boss Michael* asked me to tell him what he needed to know. He said, “Plenty of people will tell me what I would like to hear, that I am doing a great job. But I am asking you to tell me what I need to know.” I agreed, provided he wanted straight talk and not the buttering up that many managers sought. Much to his credit, he was true to his word. If I gave him the feedback that people saw him as aloof, verbose and not listening, he would receive it and address it.

Some other leaders said much the same thing, but they meant, “Tell me I’m doing a great job!” They were often defensive about feedback and preferred living in an imaginary world where they could do no wrong.

Michael is one of the best leaders I have worked with. His commitment to both receive and act on my feedback allowed me to contribute to him. He seemed more human as a result and he inspired me and others surrounding him to keep learning and developing.

I was surprised to read employees often do not feel comfortable and able to share critical feedback with their manager — especially when the feedback is about the manager’s behaviour. In one study, eighty percent of 1,335 respondents said their boss has a significant weakness that everyone knows and discusses covertly with each other, but not directly with their manager.

In the HBR article, How Leaders Can Ask for the Feedback No One Wants to Give Them the authors, Joseph Grenny and Brittney Maxfield, suggest a few ways to encourage your employees to give you feedback. They say, the main thing leaders can do is make it safe to point out their weaknesses. This demands humility.

Make it normal. Make employee-to-manager feedback a regular agenda item at team meetings.

Adopt a coach. Ask a direct report who’s usually candid to be your coach. Meet regularly to request feedback.

Prime the pump. Give examples of concerns your coach has raised to demonstrate that it is safe to share tough feedback with you.

🙋‍♂️ What is your experience of giving and receiving feedback? 🙋‍♀️

Best regards, Brian

*Name changed to avoid embarrassment