How Do You Become a Better Leader? Ask Your Team

Solicit Feedback From Employees

Leadership feedback can be incredibly valuable — if it is collected thoughtfully.

Can we all just agree that leadership matters? I'm asking so we don't have to talk about:

  1. The massive impact of employee engagement on organizational metrics like profitability, customer satisfaction, productivity and employee retention
  2. How leaders are responsible for 70% of the variance in employee engagement
  3. That 2 out of every 3 employees in the US is disengaged
  4. How 50% of voluntary turnover is due to poor leaders

Let's instead go straight to a more interesting question: Why do people usually become leaders in the first place? Is it because they're good at leadership? Or is it because they're good at something else, like sales or administration or IT? Or even office politics?

Many people first assume a position of leadership without any experience nor aptitude for it. They can advance throughout their entire careers without ever learning effective leadership, performing just well enough to avoid getting fired.

Given the huge impact that leaders have on team performance, it's easy to see that organizations have a lot to gain by driving leadership development. Unfortunately, that is a lot easier said than done.

A host of practical and psychological challenges make leadership development very difficult at the individual level, and even harder at the organizational one. But if a leadership development initiative is going to work, it usually involves at least some provision of leadership feedback. And while this is entirely necessary, it is also where the problems often begin.

Leadership feedback is a lot more complicated than it appears. And if you don't account for these complexities, the effort will likely fail, leaving the people providing the feedback feeling frustrated and demoralized. (Presumably not the outcome you intended.)

So here are 10 things to consider before you start asking for leadership feedback.

  1. How is the feedback being collected?

Typically, feedback is delivered either live (formal and/or informal) or via an anonymous survey. Anonymous surveys are safer and more effective. Many people are very uncomfortable providing feedback live, motivated to avoid confrontation. If you ask directly, they'll likely tell you what they think you want to hear, and they'll hate it.

  1. What is the motivation of people to provide honest feedback?

Many people are simply hoping to avoid making waves. The easiest way to do that is to provide you with only positive feedback. You need to make the case to your team that providing you with the feedback is safe, and that you are committed to using it to become a better leader for them. Otherwise, what's in it for them? Nothing.

  1. What questions are you asking?

The feedback you get is going to be determined primarily by the questions you ask. Most leaders don't know what to ask. And we can't assume that their teams will be able to articulate what they need, either. People often don't realize they feel excluded until you ask them, "Do you feel your opinion matters on this team?"

  1. With whom is the feedback shared?

If feedback is delivered, then feedback is received. The question is who receives it. Is it shared only with the manager, or HR as well? When feedback is shared with HR, two things tend to happen: scores get inflated, and the potential for development plummets (by inducing impression management instead).

  1. What does the feedback actually represent?

Most people think that feedback is primarily about the person receiving the feedback. Most people are wrong. The idiosyncratic rater effect describes how feedback is more reflective of the person providing the feedback (61%) than receiving it (39%). Feedback doesn't teach us as much about the recipients as it teaches us about the providers.

  1. How objective and accurate is human-generated feedback?

Not very. Assuming you can make people sufficiently comfortable even to provide honest feedback, it still wouldn't be objective and accurate, because human beings are literally incapable of providing it. That said, you can't reasonably disagree with the feedback you receive, because it represents the reality of the people providing it.

  1. What is the feedback good for?

If you are looking to leadership feedback to provide a clear and objective picture of performance, you've come to the wrong place. But if you are interested in understanding how to be the best leader for your particular team, the feedback is perfect. It tells you exactly what they need from you to deliver their best performance. Your job is to give it to them.

  1. How are you using the feedback?

Funny thing about humans – education alone is usually insufficient to drive behavior change. So even if you collect valuable feedback and earnestly review it, you're not likely to change at all. Change requires a sustained focus over time. But in the modern workplace it's increasingly difficult to find the space for that.

  1. How are you measuring the impact of the feedback?

When you decided to collect leadership feedback, I'm assuming it was due to a reason other than, "Dunno, just curious." More likely, you did it with the belief that it would help you to become a better leader. So, how do you find out if it worked? Are there things you can measure before and after the feedback to see if it had an effect?

  1. What is feedback fatigue (aka survey fatigue)?

We've already described how people can find providing feedback to be exhausting. If you ask for too much of it, or if people don't see you using the feedback for anything, or if you ask the same questions repeatedly, then you'll induce feedback fatigue. Your people will stop providing it to you, and if forced, they're their feedback will be worthless.

We already expect far too much from our leaders. Should we expect them to understand the finer points of soliciting leadership feedback too?!

The answer, of course, is no. That's for people like my team at ADP to worry about. And worry about it we did, culminating in a product that solves for every single challenge described herein. Compass is a proven, award-winning leadership development solution that uses Behavioral Economics and Industrial / Organizational Psychology to drive measurable and meaningful results. The best part is that Compass is incredibly easy to use, requiring no training or implementation.

Leadership feedback can be incredibly valuable if it is collected thoughtfully. But if feedback is collected without consideration to the complexities discussed here, it will leave you worse off than if you had done nothing at all. My advice? Leave it to the experts and focus on applying your own expertise to your job. To learn more about Compass, click here.