How Effective Leaders Handle Feedback from Their Team Members
This article is adapted from a chapter of Sarah Noll Wilson’s debut book Don’t Feed the Elephants: Overcoming the Art of Avoidance to Build Powerful Partnerships, releasing February 1, 2022.
Positions of power can paralyze perspectives.
The word power is uncomfortable for some people. I work with many high-humility leaders who are uncomfortable when I remind them that they are in a position of power. Their response is often, “But I’m just Margaret,” or, “I’m just like they are.”
When you have a title of power, you are in power. You have authority that others do not, and most importantly, you have leverage and influence those others do not. It is detrimental to your impact if your nameplate says CEO, CFO, Director, or SVP, and you ignore or try to pretend that those letters do not create impact. They do. I hear you; I know you want to hold onto the idea that you are “Just Margaret.”
But if you are Margaret, the CFO, most people are aware that you are the CFO. If you have direct reports, you have power over them, whether you want it or not. Ignoring or minimizing your power does not remove that power. You can be “just Margaret” in every aspect of your life outside the office, but when you control wages, opportunity, and security, you are more than just Margaret.
This power dynamic plays in our personal lives as well. For example, a parent has power over a child, and a more assertive partner may have power over a less assertive partner.
If you are in a position of power, it is more likely that people will hold back or adjust how they share challenging information with you (especially if it is about you). And when your team does bring you feedback, how you respond will determine how your relationship, and thus effectiveness, with your team, will be.
Effective Leaders Possess Self-Awareness
Perhaps you work as a frontline manager. Or you are reading this as a curious team member or human resource professional. Don’t go thinking you are off the hook. You are not excused from perception issues just because you are not in a senior leader-level role. Most of us significantly overestimate our self-awareness, which means we are likely to think we are not feeding into issues at work (which I fondly refer to as the “elephants” in the workplace) when we are or that we are more open to receiving feedback than we might be.
Organizational psychologist and expert in self-awareness Dr. Tasha Eurich studied five thousand people over five years, evaluating each participants’ perception of self-awareness against their actual self-awareness. She found that around 90 percent of people said they were highly self-aware. Still, when her team evaluated each participant’s behaviors and mindset, the number of genuinely self-aware people from an internal and external perspective amounted to 10-15 percent of study participants.
Dr. Eurich defines self-awareness through these questions:
- How well do I know myself?
- How well do I understand why I do what I do?
- How do I show up?
- How do I experience things?
It’s a strange little mind puzzle. It is not likely to be adequate to prescribe self-awareness as a solution to the 90 percent of people who believe they are already self-aware.
What if, instead of assuming we are highly self-aware, we all act as if we are not as self-aware as we would like to be? Let’s take the judgment out of it. There is no award for self-awareness, and we are more likely to be lacking than not.
I know that even though I work hard to be trustworthy and approachable, there is still likely feedback my team members will not share with me. Or they wait until later, and I wonder why they waited so long.
Even with all the work we have done, I never want to assume that my colleagues will be 100 percent comfortable being honest with me. I would instead believe they are not and work harder to gain their trust.
If you genuinely want to be someone people feel safe with, assume they do not feel comfortable delivering feedback to you. Then you can take intentional action to change that.
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Effective Leaders Create Psychological Safety for Their Teams
The way you show up in moments of tough feedback, heated disagreements, and conflicts of values set the tone for how safe your team members will feel.
I want to be very clear; saying you have an open-door policy is not enough to instill trust from your team. I hear this all the time from leaders. I appreciate the sentiment behind this, but I have often felt that by saying you have an open-door policy, you are also implicitly stating that you could close the door at any time. That is not your intention.
High-performing and value-added teams have consistent characteristics that set them apart from average or lower-performing teams. One of those is a degree of psychological safety.
In her research on team function, Harvard professor Dr. Amy Edmondson coined the term Psychological Safety as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”
When working with leaders, here is how I describe psychological safety: psychological safety is the ability to be your authentic self, to fail, to take risks, to disagree, to challenge thoughts, to ask for help—all without fear. In short, it is the antithesis of walking on eggshells.
Psychological safety is different from not having conflict
If a client came to me and said they had no conflict or disagreements in their organization, I would be concerned. That would indicate nobody felt as though they could “rock the boat” and show up authentically even in moments of discomfort. Psychological safety is the opposite of this scenario.
Building this sense of deep psychological safety starts with us and the risks we are willing to take and how we show up when others take risks.
To instill a sense of psychological security for those around us, we need to seek self-awareness relentlessly. We must remember that what each person needs in a situation to feel safe is different. Feedback helps us see our gaps and allows us to close that gap. We need to be impeccable in how we show up when things are hard. We need to ask for feedback repeatedly. We need to hear it and act.
“When you have psychological safety, all that energy goes to the work. Because you aren’t concerned about which version of the leader will show up,” Karen Eber, Leadership and Storytelling Consultant, writes. “You aren’t concerned about constructively challenging ideas because they are welcomed. You don’t have to feel like someone will blame you. All the energy can flow towards the work, which leads to better physical, mental, and emotional energy. You may be tired from work, but you aren’t drained from extenuating circumstances. We often think there is a significant difference between a high-performing team and a dysfunctional one. It is a very fine line. It is dependent on the ability to practice teaming and psychological safety with each other.”
As Eber thoughtfully explained, creating psychological safety is critical—but it is not always easy. That is because we must start the process by looking at ourselves.
Let’s talk about how we unwittingly erode trust, the blind spots we may have, and what you can do to become someone people trust with difficult conversations.
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The Power of Trust for effective leaders
I hear you, and I trust you when you say you are good, kind, and understanding. As we have seen in several of the stories in the previous chapters, even with those beautiful intentions, we will have people in our sphere who do not feel safe sharing feedback with us. We can influence someone’s feelings of trust, but we don’t get to decide how trustworthy we are. The other person does.
And the reality is if people do not trust you, they are not going to tell you they don’t, even when you ask. So how can we build a culture of safety and trust primarily related to hard conversations? One way is through feedback. Gathering feedback is not about getting insights into what you can do new or differently. It is an opportunity to invite someone to take a risk and for you to show them that it is safe to do so. Even if we ask for feedback and someone withholds, how we show up at that moment can lay a foundation for them to share differently next time.
Why is this so important?
Sometimes Workplace Issues Are All About You
Maybe you have figured out how to recognize that you are feeding an issue in the workplace, acknowledge it, and bring it up with the other person or in a group. Maybe you have even explored why it is difficult for you to mention an issue in the workplace.
But what happens when the challenge is about you? What if something you did or did not do contributed to the creation of an elephant? What if no one feels like they can tell you?
In conversations about trust, I will ask, “How many of you would describe yourself as trustworthy?” And of course, everyone raises their hand—except for that one smart aleck who says, “No, I know myself too well, I wouldn’t trust me.”
As human beings, we overestimate our best all the time, and we are all likely to overestimate how easy it will be for others to approach us with feedback or a sensitive issue. As we discussed in an earlier chapter, our aversion to cognitive dissonance keeps us from registering information that contradicts the way we feel about ourselves.
I’ve never met anyone who says, “You know what, Sarah? I am good at retaliation. When somebody gives me feedback that is hard to hear, I make sure they never think about doing that again.”
And yet, anyone who has ever received or delivered “360 feedback” has seen this. Inevitably someone will quickly try to figure out who said what and discredits the feedback or, worse, uses it against that person.
Whenever I have had to point out to a leader that their team does not communicate because of fear of retaliation, I hear, “Me? But I would never retaliate!” When they say that, it feels true to them now because their conscious brain would never retaliate, but their amygdala-driven brain sure might.
Most people say—or at least think—that they are nice, so others should be able to bring things up with them. It makes sense, right? Sometimes that fear of retaliation may have nothing to do with you and the result of a previous experience with another leader.
The bottom line? If you have identified an issue in the workplace in your midst, the first step is to look at yourself and see how you have contributed.
Sometimes Workplace Issues are Not About You
You can do everything right, and it can still be difficult for your team members to come to you with feedback.
If a team member worked for a leader who did not receive feedback well in the past, it would influence how safe they feel coming to you to talk about an elephant. They might need extra time to heal and feel secure in their job and relationships before you can have those conversations.
When I talk about this work with my parents, who are in their mid-70s, they tell me how wonderful they think organizations are moving toward a culture where feedback can be given and received. “We would never have done that,” my mom said. Dad added, “Back then, you respected authority. If something was not working, you sucked it up, and you tolerated it.”
I don’t, however, want this to let you off the hook.
There are things you are doing (or not doing) that contribute to your team’s feelings of safety around sharing their avoidance with you.
Even if you are sure there are other factors at play, keep doing the work to create an environment where team members can bring vulnerable conversations to you, and that means examining your own unconscious bias.
Rules for Receiving Feedback as a Leader
If you want to create an environment of safety, you have to be impeccable with how you seek feedback and how you receive it. And when you aren’t—because that will happen, as we all have regrettable events—ensure that you take the steps to repair the relationship.
Acknowledge the feedback
Sometimes, whenever you get feedback, it’s valuable to say, “Thank you for sharing your perspective and experience with me.” Other times, the situation can be complex enough to warrant an entirely different reaction, depending on the situation or the power dynamics at play. Most of the time when we get feedback, it comes from someone wanting to help us. I want to be clear that if somebody is saying something harmful or outwardly insulting or aggressive, you don’t need to say thank you there. Acknowledging and appreciating the feedback doesn’t mean you need to take action on it.
Give yourself room
If the feedback you’re given is hard to hear and you’re not ready to respond, it’s okay to say, “This is tough for me to hear because it isn’t how I want to show up. Let me chew on this, and I’ll follow up with you.” Remember, our brain triggers in .07 seconds. In today’s society, we’re conditioned to try to solve problems right away. But you don’t have to! For me, I know that my brain isn’t going to be at its best solving problems when I’m triggered, so it’s important for me to find that time. If this resonates, try saying: “Thanks for sharing that with me. I need some time to think about it before I figure out what action I need to take.”
One of the traps leaders often fall into is not following up to show the team members how they’ve applied the feedback. Whether it’s in an email or another one-on-one, take the chance to give your team member an update. You need to work to not get defensive, to not explain, and to not justify. Your follow-up should sound something like this: “Hey, Samaj, I want to follow up with you. Thank you so much for giving me that feedback. I’ve been thinking about how you noticed I interrupt women more than men. Here are some things I’m doing to resolve that. I appreciate you telling me, so I can work to improve and would be grateful if you can let me know what changes you’ve observed or not.” Sometimes people won’t give feedback because they don’t think the person will do anything with it. But by following up, you are showing that you will.
Make it visible
The work of self-awareness means that often our insights will be internal and invisible to others. For example, if I am working on not interrupting others, people won’t see me catching it in the moment when I do it or afterward. Also, sometimes you may need to work just as hard with changing the perception of others as you do at changing the actual behavior. Knowing that some behaviors might take time to shift, it’s important to identify at least one action you take that would be visible and make a difference to others. Building on the example above, if you catch yourself interrupting someone, instead of just noting it internally and holding back, you might celebrate the catch out loud. For example, “I’m sorry I just interrupted you. This is something I am working on. Please proceed.”
Don’t go pants-less
Do you need to take action on all feedback? No. I like to think of feedback like a pair of pants. Try them on. If they fit, great. If they don’t, then they don’t. But don’t throw away every pair of pants that’s given to you, even when it’s thrown at you missing its tags. Sometimes you need to wear an uncomfortable pair to break them in and make them work for you.
There are some areas of feedback that as a leader, you should always explore and find action to take. Anything related to people’s sense of psychological and physical safety needs to be taken seriously, as that is one of the most important responsibilities—if not the most important responsibility—you have as a leader.
How Effective Leaders Can Collaborate on Feedback
Effectively approaching an elephant is not always easy. To have conversations that truly matter, we must choose to be curious about ourselves and our relationships despite our discomfort.
It is easy to be curious when a situation is benign, and there is an elevated level of psychological safety. It is much more challenging when the stakes are high, and you start feeling threatened and want to armor up. Remember that your thoughts and feelings may work in resistance to the way you want to show up in a conversation. That is okay.
Even though I do this work regularly and help others have these conversations, I still have times when those protective feelings well up or my nervous energy. ‘I don’t want to be curious!’ I will think. ‘I want to tell that guy he’s wrong!’ or ‘I feel sick just thinking about this conversation. Observe the way you are feeling, honor it, and focus your actions on the impact you want to have. When I feel myself becoming guarded or prone to judgment, I think, ‘Be curious, be curious,’ as a mantra to keep me on track, then I take a deep breath (or a sip of water) and ask a curious question.
Curiosity is entering a different door to get to the same room and leaving another way you came in. When you choose to take the curious door, you will find a path toward the meaningful conversations you need to have.
Our goal is not always to remove discomfort but to minimize damage. Our goal is to hear and be heard. If you want to get better at having these conversations, you need to do the work repeatedly.
People evolve, relationships evolve, and situations become even when these connections are reasonable, these conversations can still feel challenging. The practice may not make it easy, but it will make it easier.