Leadership

10 ways leaders can get crucial feedback

If you're going to successfully lead your team members through these rocky times, you need to listen to their ideas and understand what they're dealing with-- and that requires a dedicated effort on your part. These strategies will help you keep your finger on the pulse of your IT group.

If you're going to successfully lead your team members through these rocky times, you need to listen to their ideas and understand what they're dealing with-- and that requires a dedicated effort on your part. These strategies will help you keep your finger on the pulse of your IT group.


Most leaders tell me that they know what's going on in their organizations. They don't.

In demanding times like these, it's particularly important for leaders to get feedback. But precisely when they need to be considering all options and opinions, they may not hear many of them.

One reason for this sorry state is that some leaders don't really care. They're so certain of themselves (or their talent, or skill, or brainpower, or whatever) that they truly don't think anyone else can tell them anything new. Most won't admit it, however, because they think you won't understand. So they say things like," I'm open to any ideas or suggestions that will make us better." And when feedback is offered, they may even appear to appreciate it. But action speaks louder than words -- and that's how you can tell just how sincere those words were. Kind of like all those companies that proclaim, "Our most important asset is our people" and then at the first sign of trouble, start layoffs so they can keep other activities in place.

Here are some field-tested ideas I've seen used successfully in various situations to elicit valuable information. I used the first one myself when, as a leader of a large, just-acquired company, I oversaw the layoffs of 1,300 people.

Note: This article originally appeared as an entry in our IT Leadership blog. It's also available as a PDF download.

1: The anonymous hotline

Nowadays, hotlines can be e-mails, phones, or paper tools. However you do it, put something into place that allows people to provide candid, honest feedback or ask questions without fear of getting busted. I used a mailbox, kind of a "Dear John" thing, where people could ask questions or sound off and I'd reply to them.

2: Public communication tools

If you have a newsletter, use it to keep folks aware of what's going on and to deal with rumors, which are harmful. Publish Q & A's, based on questions you've heard through other means, such as your anonymous hotline.

3: Ombudsmen

Someone in your organization should be accessible to anyone who wants to make a point, ask a question, or sound off without fear of reprisal. Employees should know that what they say will be relayed to the head honcho. In some organizations, this is the HR person; in others, it may simply be someone who is trusted and respected by all involved. Just identify someone and let that person know that you need him or her to keep you in touch with things.

4: Anonymous surveys

As long as employees have no fear of being "caught," surveys are great tools for getting your fingers on the pulse of the organization. But don't over think them. They should be done quickly and fairly frequently. And have the guts to make the results public afterward. That shows the employee base that you're aware of their concerns. If you can't provide a fix, at least let them know that you care about the problem and will try to deal with it when you can.

5: Lunch with the leader

Periodically, have a lunch meeting with folks from all levels of the organization. Make it clear that there will be time at the end of it for a question-and-answer session if the group consists of more than 12 individuals. If the group is small, make a point to sit beside any quiet ones and encourage them to open up.

6: Visits to other departments, offices, or locations

The best way to open up communications is to show that you're accessible and interested. I don't care how often someone says they care about what's going on in other locations. If they're never there, they won't hear enough.

7: Social events

Many people will tell you that there's no such thing as a social / work event. They characterize the Holiday Party or the Summer Picnic as political affairs, and they're probably right in many companies. But such events don't have to be heartburn-inducing activities. If you use them as "skip-level" affairs, you'll probably enjoy yourself and learn a ton about what your team members are really feeling. Make it a point to spend time with those at least two levels below you, tell your direct reports to do the same thing, and then compare notes back in the office.

8: Contrarian perspectives

When leaders allow themselves to hear only what they want to hear, people figure it out pretty quickly and clam up. If you show that you appreciate a healthy debate, you're more likely to get differing ideas thrown about.

9: Playfulness

One of the founding senior execs at DIRECTV was famous for throwing Nerf footballs with anyone still in their cubes after 6pm or on Saturdays. It was a kind of jock thing, but even those less-than-jock types could throw the little soft football around. Sending a few lateral passes allowed time for a bit of bonding conversation and built trust between the leader and the team.

10: MBWA

Tom Peters coined the term MBWA -- "management by walking around" -- back in the 80s. If you're serious about wanting to encourage honest feedback and candid comments, read his writings. The premise of MBWA is that if you expose yourself to enough people enough of the time, you'll hear things you might not otherwise have come across.

You need to know

For many reasons, people will hold back or shelter the boss from certain information. It's not healthy and makes it tougher to be as good as possible. People who really want to know what's going on in their organizations do the things listed above. Those who don't, probably don't really want to know.


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About

John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of BusinessSuccessCoach.net, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...

12 comments
Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

is going to help your company. The environment is so bad people daren't tell you what you need to know, means you already know it and you don't give a crap. In the rare event that the above is not the case, how do I gain recognition from my anonymously presented good idea? If I didn't believe it was a good idea I should be recognised for, why would I present it by any means? You want to foster feedback, it's easy. When it has no value, you say why, so it will improve, when it does have value, you reward it in real terms. Anything else is merely giving the illusion that you want it.

aphillips
aphillips

One of the big ones is not hitting the roof when something goes wrong. People will learn to hide their mistakes and you will never know what's happening.

jkameleon
jkameleon

1. The need for anonymours hotline is obvious sign, that people don't trust their managers enough to speak with them in direct and honest manner. If this is the case, the organization is already fucked. Don't bother about feedback and hotlines, don't bother about anything. CYA and jump ship at the first suitable occasion. 3. If people don't trust their managers enough to speak with them in direct and honest manner, what makes you think they will trust ombudsmen? 4. If people don't trust their managers enough to speak with them in direct and honest manner, they won't trust anonymous surverys being truly anonymous either. Justifiably so. IMHE, anonymous surveys are NEVER really anonymous. 5, 7, 9. If people don't trust their managers enough to speak with them in direct and honest manner when necessary, what makes you think they will speak at lunch, social event, or horseplay? 10. Walking around and hearing people is a VERY good idea, but-- if people don't trust their managers enough to speak with them in direct and honest manner, it's just a waste of time and shoes.

jon
jon

Some well-intentioned ideas here, all of which could work in the right situation. And some which are more likely to work than others. For me, MBWA (why was this last on your list?) and Visiting other locations have to be most powerful. Meeting people informally in person is the most efficient way to - get instant feedback, - clarify what it actually means - assure people that you're listening - assure them that you care - deal with their concerns there and then - assure yourself that they are engaged - give feedback in return. And that's because you have real live interaction with real live people. Second-hand feedback via ombudsmen will always be edited and unclear. Email and surveys are hugely cumbersome for feedback conversations compared with live (or even phone) speech. So don't hide behind your desk, screen or PA. Go out and talk as if you were a real person. Jonathan Lewin www.technicalinfluence.com

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

What about the other side of the coin. How do you let your boss know what you think? Too strong and you're labelled a troublemaker or maybe a whiner. Too weak and you're either ignored or considered a pushover. There's a balance somewhere that gets the info across without jeopardizing your job or reputation. But it's not always easy to find.

myspl
myspl

Please don't use my email for public user ID. I figure out how to change it, unfortunately after the fact. I saw no field in the account creation page. This is a UI design error. Original material removed.

jkameleon
jkameleon

Alas, figuring out which idea is good, which is bad, let along presenting arguments, far exceeds the capabilities of a typical, feedback starved PHB. Fuck it, it's 21 century... arguments and facts are nothing, and perception is everything. Giving the illusion is consequently pretty much the only thing the leaders are supposed to be capable of.

svilla8874
svilla8874

I've been using this technique for about 5 years now and find that I get the best idea of how people are using the tools provided and where their pain points. My user community is very focused on delivering the product, so I find if I just walk around and ask "how are thing going" I get the kind of feedback I need. Both positive and negative.

MyopicOne
MyopicOne

...if you want them to continue to work, then you need to take action on the information provided to you. Doesn't always mean firing or disciplining someone - often all that would be needed for improvement is for the CIO/VP/Leader to inquire about the issue to others. Usually increased visibility (and followup) will accomplish what is needed. If action is not taken, then all of the above will fail because nobody will bother to talk. Saw that in spades from my old VP/CIO. I know the company had #1 (which was nothing but a conduit to retaliation, so worthless), he did #2, 4, 5, 6. Also did #10 for three weeks until he gave up because what he was hearing was not what his managers were telling him because . . . #8 he completely failed on because he insisted his meetings be nothing but happy happy BS... Just lost his job, too. Finally...

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I keep seeing the wires, and the guy doing a a porly executed commando shuffle under the desk to hold up the unfounded ideas.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

that CIO is some sort of acronym for Loses convincingly at golf.

Imprecator
Imprecator

Face IT: Upper Level management doesn't WANT to give a damn, that's why they hire cowards as CIOs. IMHE the more an organization does stuff that resemble those actions mentioned on the article, the more likely that it is a place I'd rather starve to death than to work for. Beware when a CEO level exec goes on saying stuff that sounds existentialist or even uses words like "Spiritual" . It's a sure sign that the said CEO is a dictator