Candid Feedback for Managers: Why You Need It and How to Get it

There’s a famous cautionary tale about how important it is for leaders to solicit candid feedback from the people around them: It’s called The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Emperor's new clothes

The moral of the story is that it’s dangerous (and dangerously easy) for people in authority to insulate themselves from negative feedback, so they wind up looking…a little foolish.

That’s why, as a manager, I go out of my way to encourage my team to give me candid feedback, so I learn how to lead them more effectively and work around my own imperfections. But getting constructive criticism isn’t easy: It can be challenging for team members to say and challenging for managers to hear.

So if you’re a manager trying to get more candid feedback, start by first understanding what it is you’re looking for, why it’s important, and how to get it without undermining your own position.

What Is Candid Feedback, Anyway?

Candid feedback is an opinion shared in a constructive manner, free from fear of reprisal.

Seems simple enough, but plenty of managers still misunderstand the term. Some get nervous because they think “candid feedback” means opening themselves up to a public roast and giving their team permission to criticize them at any time. Other managers think they’re comfortable with candid feedback, but their definition of “candid” is so watered-down that it’s not true honesty. That’s why it’s important to have a shared definition of what candid feedback is as well as what it isn’t, so you know when you’re getting it and when you’re not.

Kim Scott is a Silicon Valley legend, the architect of the “radical candor” framework and author of Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. She defines radical candor as being at the intersection of “caring personally and challenging directly.”

Radical candor framework

Courtesy Radical Candor

If you ask a team member how you could do better, but they’re so afraid of hurting your feelings that they say nothing, that’s “ruinous empathy.” It’s “ruinous” because it means you’re not learning about your own flaws, so you don’t have a chance to address them.

So what if a team member’s feedback is insulting—if they say that they could do your job better, for example? That’s obnoxious aggression, and it’s not appropriate in the workplace.

If a team member flatters you to try and get in your favor, that’s manipulative insincerity. It’s arguably the worst quadrant since, unlike ruinous empathy, it isn’t rooted in care.

As a manager, you can’t control how people feel or what they say, but you can create an environment where team members care enough to give you honest feedback.

Why Managers Need Candid Feedback

Managers need candid feedback to help them recognize their own shortcomings and to tailor their style to each individual’s needs.

Managers need to grow as much as any other member of the team, and the only way to do that is by hearing from the people closest to us. I have a boss of my own, but he’s not there for the day-to-day operations.

Unless I can count on my team to be honest with me, I’ve got no one around to tell me the things I might not want to hear but definitely need to know.

Of course, when a team member gives me this kind of feedback, it doesn’t necessarily (or even usually) mean that I’m doing something wrong. It just means that I’m doing something that isn’t working for this individual.

For example, I’m a big fan of the inspirational speech, and it’s often a helpful method to connect with and inspire my team. But when I started working with my current right-hand man, I noticed that my anecdotes didn’t seem to resonate with him. So I asked him, point-blank, if he’d like me to cut down on the stirring rhetoric, and he confessed that he would. Our relationship improved immeasurably as a result.

The lesson is: If you don’t ask the hard question, you’ll never get the answer, and you’ll just keep repeating the pattern of not getting what you need from your team. More importantly, they’ll keep not getting what they need from you.

How to Get Candid Feedback from Your Team

As we’ve discussed before, you can’t simply ask for constructive criticism out of the blue; your team will likely feel uncomfortable giving it. Instead, you have to conscientiously build a foundation of trust and choose the appropriate venue to invite this feedback.

Make a Time and a Place for Constructive Feedback

You can’t just leave your office door open and expect employees to bring upward feedback to you. Instead, you have to ask for it directly and consistently.

The best venue for getting team members to share their true feelings is the one-on-one meeting. It’s private, personal, and naturally lends itself to discussing big-picture issues.

Even if you have an issue that can’t wait until your next one-on-one, make sure to find a private moment. If you try and invite feedback in front of the whole team, you risk that people will be too nervous to say anything, or worse, that you lose control of the situation.

Ask the Right Questions

Build questions into your one-on-one agenda that are designed to get you feedback.

For example:

  • What could I be doing to support you better?
  • Are there things I’m doing that are keeping you from being your happiest and most productive?

Try asking for feed-forward—what you could do in the future to be helpful, instead of what you did in the past that didn’t work. This can help your team members feel more comfortable being honest since they don’t have to feel like they’re criticizing you.

Above all, be patient. Getting candid feedback from your team takes time.

You have to prove to your team members that you won’t punish them for what they share with you. So make sure to reward even small acts of honesty by expressing your gratitude. In a few weeks, they’ll start to believe that by helping you be a better manager, they’re deepening their relationship with you and making their own lives easier.

Anonymous Feedback: Use With Caution

Using an anonymous feedback process, like a 360 review, can also be a helpful way to get the unvarnished truth. However, it’s a good idea to have someone else look at the raw data before you do.

For one thing, there’s a risk that you’ll be able to recognize individual team members by their writing styles, and that risks the integrity of the entire exercise.

For another, it’s an unfortunate fact that someone will always use anonymous feedback as an excuse to vent their ugliest emotions. I once worked with a (nearly) universally beloved human resources rep, but one person used their review to insult her. Thankfully, we were able to only give her the useful feedback, instead of causing her needless anguish.

Don’t Be Defensive

No matter how secure you are as a manager, I can guarantee that getting constructive feedback will still feel emotionally challenging sometimes. And hey, that’s okay! You’re entitled to your own feelings! But if you want to make your team feel safe being honest with you, you can’t let defensiveness get the better of you.

In my experience, people tolerate one instance of defensiveness before they stop opening up to you. So guard yourself against that reaction before you ask for feedback. Make sure your body language and tone of voice indicate that you’re open to hearing criticism. And don’t ask questions you’re not actually ready to hear the answer to.

If you do find yourself getting defensive, ask clarifying questions. If a team member says they don’t want me to talk to them so much, I might initially take it personally and assume they don’t like me. But if I’m curious rather than defensive, they might explain that the real reason is they have trouble concentrating.

Turn Candid Feedback Into Real Change

Getting your team to give you candid feedback can be a challenge, but it’s still only half the battle. Once you’ve learned what your team members need from you, it’s up to you to adapt your management style accordingly. (Or not, depending on how much someone needs you to change.)

What’s more, this process of soliciting feedback, absorbing it, and adjusting in response to it is one you’ll have to undertake again and again. Times change, new team members have new preferences, and even old hands can evolve to need different things.

So don’t think of getting feedback as a one-time project, after which you’ll be the perfect manager. It’s more like you’re a ship’s navigator, constantly checking your position to make sure you’re on course. That’s why at Uptick, we believe that managers should incorporate reciprocal feedback into every one-on-one meeting.

Once both you and your team are comfortable with candid feedback, you’ll be able to help each other that much better, and you won’t have to worry about being the emperor with no clothes.

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