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Employee Feedback: 5 Tips to Seeking Input as a Leader

Employee Feedback: 5 Tips to Seeking Input as a Leader

As a leader, it’s easy to make the mistake of projecting an image of being all-knowing and in charge in front of your team. This can discourage your team from sharing feedback with you, even if you’ve never explicitly told them not to. However, nobody’s perfect, and everyone can benefit from feedback. Even the best of leaders can lose touch with reality without regular checks and balances.

In this article, we will discuss the advantages of receiving feedback from employees, the disadvantages of not doing so, common obstacles, and 6 practical tips on how you can effectively ask for feedback from your team as a leader. Let’s get started!

What is Employee Feedback?

Just to clear things up before we get started, employee feedback can mean two different things.

On the one hand, it can be defined as feedback given to employees, a process which typically involves a supervisor or manager offering constructive suggestions, positive or negative, to their direct reports, often as part of routine performance evaluations.

On the other hand, it can refer to a process where someone in the leadership role actively and willingly seeks input from the team to gather diverse perspectives and inform decision-making. As opposed to feedback to employees, feedback from employees isn’t typically sought as part of a regular process, but sought as needed.

In this article, we’ll be focusing the latter type of employee feedback, which is feedback from employees, as this is a subject that needs to be addressed more often in the workplace.

Strategies for Seeking Feedback

Seeking feedback isn’t necessarily straightforward. According to Ashford (1986), people seek feedback in one of two ways: they may explicitly ask others for feedback or read others’ actions and body language to infer feedback.

  • Direct Inquiry: Directly asking others how they perceive and evaluate one’s actions. For example, a leader directly asking others about their shortcomings in leading a team and areas requiring improvement.
  • Observation/Monitoring: Monitoring various situational cues, observing others, and observing others’ reactions to one’s actions to monitor relevant information in the environment, to infer how one’s performance is. For example, when initiating a team collaboration task, a leader can judge the reasonableness of goal setting and whether the team cooperation atmosphere meets expectations by observing whether employees are enthusiastically engaged or showing apathy during the progress of the task.

Both feedback seeking methods/strategies have their pros and cons. Direct inquiries allows one to directly obtain the desired feedback from appropriate sources, avoiding possible misunderstandings and ensures clarity of intent. However, as direct inquiries can come off as more upfront and a bit formal, they may sound a bit too blunt and pose a face threat, making it hard for people to give their true thoughts.

On the flip side, by seeking feedback through observing or monitoring, you might uncover details that people purposely keep under wraps when asked directly, steering clear of any complications related to the power dynamics between a leader and a team member. However, the clues you pick up from observing or monitoring can be intricate, unclear, or conflicting, which means the leader needs to be sharp at selecting, understanding, interpreting, analyzing, and putting it all together.

4 Benefits of Seeking Employee Feedback

Benefit 1: Better coping with uncertainty

We now live in a world where change can be fast-paced, constant and unpredictable, sometimes described as a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) World. Seeking feedback allows leaders to deal with such uncertainty by establishing connections with others, gaining richer perspectives to perceive potential crises and pitfalls in the environment. For example, the founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, Ray Dalio, encourages employees to voice different opinions and provide honest feedback, allowing him to maintain high decision-making quality in the turbulent and complex financial industry.

Benefit 2: Overcoming the “feedback vacuum”

Research shows that when people move up the ranks in an organization, they tend to get less feedback. Such a phenomenon is sometimes called the “feedback vacuum”, where leaders in high positions struggle to receive feedback, similar to being isolated in a vacuum. To overcome this issue, actively seeking feedback becomes essential for leaders. By actively seeking feedback, leaders gain a clear self-awareness and understanding, identifying their strengths and blind spots to avoid arrogance or losing touch with reality.

Benefit 3: Enhanced leadership effectiveness

While there is a common belief that requesting feedback from employees diminishes leadership effectiveness, it actually enhances it. A study by management experts Zenger and Folkman found that leaders scoring in the top 10% for “actively seeking feedback” outperformed 86% of individuals in overall leadership effectiveness. Conversely, those in the bottom 10% for actively seeking feedback also ranked in the bottom 15% for overall leadership effectiveness.

Benefit 4:Improved interpersonal impression

Asking for feedback brings advantages beyond just improving performance. Seeking feedback, especially negative feedback, can demonstrate a leader’s humble attitude of “being happy to hear criticism.” Research by Chun (2014) found that, compared to performance improvement, leaders seek feedback more for impression management motives, and indeed achieve better interpersonal impressions. Such instances show that seeking feedback, especially negative feedback, can enhance a leader’s humility and improve their interpersonal image.

3 Risks of Not Seeking Employee Feedback

Even though we’ve already covered the positives of asking employees for feedback, it can be more persuasive to discuss the other side of the coin – the potential risks. Let’s now explore the risks of not seeking employee feedback to further understand why employee feedback is crucial. The risks can be categorized into three areas: personal, work, and interpersonal.

Personal Risk: Falling into cognitive biases

Cognitive biases refer to the phenomenon where individuals, due to subjective factors, have distorted perceptions of themselves, others, and their environment, leading to a detachment from reality. According to American leadership expert McNulty, many leaders often avoid facing facts, retreating into illusions while arrogance replaces introspection.

Sydney Finkel, a professor of strategy and leadership at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, mentioned in “The Mother of Success” that there are four destructive behaviors that can unwittingly plunge a company into an abyss: (1) Personal cognitive errors by company leaders prevent a clear view of reality; (2) Incorrect attitudes allow errors to continue in place of truth; (3) Issues arise in the communication system handling potential urgent information; (4) Leadership traits prevent company leaders from correcting their mistakes.

Therefore, if leaders do not actively seek feedback, it could lead to serious cognitive biases, putting the company and themselves in danger.

Work Risk: Falling into the competency trap

Herminia Ibarra, an expert in career and leadership development, introduced the concept of the “competency trap” where individuals spend more time on what they excel at, limiting their activities to areas that have historically brought them the most value, but neglecting activities that will make him more attuned to his outside environment.

It is conceivable that leaders who lack feedback-seeking tendencies are likely to spend time on what they excel at and familiar areas, but may easily overlook more critical matters.

Interpersonal Risk: Facing isolation and lack of support

Aristotle, in “Politics,” noted that “man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is anti-social by nature and not by circumstance is either inferior or more than human.” This emphasizes that isolation and lack of support are inherently undesirable states.

When leaders rarely seek feedback, their connections with colleagues weaken, diminishing the perceived authenticity of the leader behind their polished “professional facade.” This makes it challenging for employees to grasp the leader’s genuine needs and emotions, and this distance can accentuate the leader’s “authority,” leading to two outcomes: (1) The leader is seen as very capable, which might lead to personal admiration but could also prompt employees to develop a social loafing mindset, thinking they can simply lean on those in power; (2) When the leader displays signs of struggle, others find it hard to offer assistance, opting instead to observe from afar.

3 Challenges Hindering Employee Feedback

Every leader desires to be well-liked by their employees and be perceived as modest and open to feedback, but in reality, this trait is seldom observed in action. So, what makes it so challenging to put into practice? We believe there are 3 primary challenges.

Challenge 1: Threat to self-esteem

A leader’s identity is like an invisible shackle because they receive a lot of attention. Leaders set the bar high for themselves, aiming not only to enhance their skills but also to seek approval and recognition from others. This external validation is as important to them as self-improvement. This means that leaders experience more “identity anxiety” than regular employees and are more sensitive to negative feedback.

Leaders may seem to maintain their self-esteem by constantly seeking positive feedback, but this undoubtedly deviates from the original purpose of seeking feedback, which is to correct and improve. Therefore, leaders are likely less motivated to seek feedback as they weigh their options.

Challenge 2: Threat to external image

When we think of leaders, we often picture them as goal-setters, rule enforcers, problem solvers, or even as warriors battling obstacles to achieve great things.

Even though experts say managers should be seen as team players, guides, cheerleaders, and nurturers, many leaders have grown up believing in the superhero model.

The heroic ideal is all about moving forward and standing out. But asking for feedback means pausing, reflecting, which clashes with the whole quick decision-making and go-getter vibe of the hero.

To keep up their reputation as the big cheese in the organization, the hero who saves the day, leaders might shy away from asking for feedback—it might seem too wimpy for their image.

Challenge 3: Mental drain

Asking for feedback can be a real brain drain. When employees give feedback to leaders, they might overdo positive feedback or sugarcoat negative feedback, making leaders work hard to figure out what’s real and what’s not.

Upon receiving the feedback, leaders have to decide whether to act on it or provide reasons not to. Brushing off feedback they don’t fancy could make the feedback provider less likely to speak up next time, and it might make it look like the whole feedback thing is just for show, leading to crummy feedback down the line.

So, leaders are under the gun to handle feedback, and sometimes, it just seems easier to skip employee feedback altogether.

5 Tips on Seeking Feedback from Employees

Tip 1: Practice empathic listening:

Empathic listening, also known as “empathetic listening”, is the practice of being attentive and responsive to others’ input during conversation. It involves connecting emotionally with the other person and recognizing parallels between their experiences and your own, allowing you to respond more genuinely and compassionately.

As we’ve discussed earlier, it’s not just about asking for feedback; it’s also about making sure your team feels like their voices are heard. If they don’t feel listened to, they might not speak up next time. That’s why it’s really important for leaders to practice empathetic listening, so that their employees feel genuinely listened to and acknowledged.

To practice empathetic listening, here are a few practical things you can do:

  1. Show you’re listening by nodding or using phrases like “I get it” or “I see” to demonstrate that you’re listening attentively and patiently.
  2. Pay attention to the speaker’s emotions and respond accordingly. Don’t just focus on their words; acknowledge their feelings too. It could be as simple as smiling back or giving a supportive pat on the back when they’re frustrated.
  3. Repeat what the speaker said in your own words to make sure you understand them or at least show that you’re making an effort to. For example, if they mention, “I’m not happy in my current role,” you could respond with, “So, you’re saying you’re not happy in your current role?” This little nudge might encourage them to share more.

Tip 2: Show vulnerability

Social scientist Brené Brown, after conducting numerous interviews and thorough data analysis, discovered that the core of social relationships lies in vulnerability. Here, “vulnerability” doesn’t mean weakness or compliance; it actually refers to the courage to be authentic.

During feedback exchanges, both the person seeking feedback and the one providing it are inevitably influenced by their personal positions, roles, and identities, which can impede complete openness. The key to overcoming this is to display vulnerability—revealing the human aspect beneath all the external facades.

As Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates, articulated in his book “Principles,” the more transparent and vulnerable you are, the more you’ll be perceived as a “trustworthy individual”. And that’s the key to receiving authentic feedback.

Tip 3: Don’t be afraid to ask questions

True wisdom is not being ashamed to ask questions. However, not all leaders can set aside their pride to seek advice and feedback from their employees. For leaders who prioritize learning and attribute success to diligence, feedback is perceived as a tool for enhancement, making seeking advice a chance for personal growth.

Conversely, leaders focused on performance, who view capability as the key factor for success interpret feedback as a holistic self-assessment that may expose weaknesses. As a result, they tend to react defensively and resist feedback.

If you see yourself more in the second group, maybe it’s time to shift to a learning mindset when it comes to success and leadership. It takes some serious humility to ask your team questions, but it can kick off a positive and helpful conversation. Plus, the folks you’re turning to for help will feel valued and respected in the process.

Tip 4: Welcome criticism and embrace a growth mindset

We all have a natural aversion to criticism and negative information. Is the idea of “welcoming criticism” attainable? Psychologist Carol Dweck’s research on a growth mindset found that individuals who believe there is always more to learn and enjoy encountering unfamiliar territories can overcome their fear of failure.

Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, wrote in his autobiography that “true confidence comes from having the courage to welcome new changes and ideas, no matter where they come from.” He rejected elitism, established channels to listen to employees’ genuine feedback, unearthed and nurtured their potential, viewed himself and others with a growth mindset, and became the “most admired, frequently learned from, and emulated CEO of his time.”

It’s worth emphasizing that a growth mindset can be cultivated and practiced deliberately. To embrace a growth mindset, shift your perspective towards challenges as opportunities for learning and development. Value effort over innate talent, persist through setbacks, welcome feedback as a tool for improvement, see change as a chance for growth, and celebrate your progress along the way.

Tip 5: Listen to different perspectives

Tamara Chandler, one of America’s top 25 consultants, wrote in her book “The Power of Feedback” that the more feedback sources you have, the more resources for learning and diverse perspectives you’ll have. It’s evident that feedback from different fields, positions, and viewpoints not only helps leaders with positive intentions gather information more fairly and accurately, but also eliminates biases for making correct judgments, achieving a “clearer understanding by listening to all.”

So how can one actually “listen to all”? Leaders can establish anonymous employee forums to prevent flattery, tolerate unconstructive negative comments, and encourage constructive negative feedback. For example, Huawei created their very own Xinsheng Forum for employees to chat, vent, offer suggestions, share stories, etc., becoming an effective channel for top management to listen to diverse voices.

Conclusion

In this article, we discussed the advantages of getting feedback from employees along with some practical advice. Putting these ideas into action might pose challenges. However, we genuinely encourage you to aim to be a leader who actively seeks and values feedback moving forward.

With that said, let’s end this article with a Steve Jobs quote: “If you want to hire great people and have them stay working for you, you have to let them make decisions and you have to be run by ideas, not hierarchy.”

Feedback Made Easy with Huddles

Although we understand how crucial employee feedback is, putting it into practice can be challenging. Many people opt to stay quiet instead of speaking up to dodge potential conflicts.

Huddles.app, a meeting notes tool powered by AI, offers a nifty feedback function. This feature enables team members to provide feedback and ratings on discussed topics. The user-friendly interface and drop-down list make giving feedback enjoyable and interactive, rather than tense and confrontational. By including this in your meeting agenda templates, seeking feedback becomes a regular part of your routine. Try out Huddles for free today!

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