10 ways to get honest feedback (before it's too late)

The recession is causing many businesses to cut expenses and reduce headcounts as they try to survive. In this article, leadership coach John M. McKee says that there are many other options available. But most leaders need to learn how to listen better.

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

In demanding times, like currently, it's particularly important that leaders can get honest feedback. But precisely when they need to be considering all options and opinions; they usually don't hear many of them.

There are a lot of reasons for this sorry state. One is that the leader her/himself doesn't really care. These individuals are so certain of themselves (or their talent, or skill, or brainpower, 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 which 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 when you can tell just how sincere those words were. Kind of like all those companies ads that proclaim, "our most important asset is our people;" and then at the first sign of trouble they start layoffs so they can keep other activities in place.

Here are some field-tested ideas which I've seen used successfully in various situations. I used the first one myself when, as a leader of a large, just-acquired company, I oversaw the layoffs of 1300 people:

1. The anonymous hotline - Nowadays these can be e-mails, phones, paper tools. However you do it, put something into place that allows people to provide candid, honest feedback or asking 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 deal with rumors, which are harmful. Publish Q & A's such as those you've heard through other means like in #1. 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 and know that it's going to be relayed to the head honcho. In some organizations, this is the HR person, in others it may be simply someone who is trusted and respected by all involved. Just identify the person and let him or her know that you need them to keep you "in touch". 4. Anonymous surveys - As long as there's no fear of being "caught", these are great tools for getting your fingers on the pulse of the organization. But don't over-think them. They should be done fairly 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 attending. Make it clear that there will be time at the end of it for a question and answer session if it's the group is more than 12 individuals. If the group is small, make a point to sit beside the quiet one(s) and encourage them to open up. 6. Visit other departments or offices or locations - The best way to open up communication is to show that you are 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 cite the Holiday Party, or the Summer Picnic as "political affairs" and they're probably right in many companies. But these don't have to be heartburn inducing activities for all involved. 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 2 levels below you, tell your direct reports to do the same thing and compare notes back in the office. 8. Ask for contrarians' perspectives - People figure out pretty quickly if the leader only allows himself to hear what he wants to hear. If you show that you appreciate a healthy debate, you're more likely to get differing ideas thrown about. 9. Be playful - 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. While sending a lateral pass, it provided a bit of bonding conversation and built trust between the leader and the team. 10. MBWA - This term was coined back in the 80s by Tom Peters. If you're serious about wanting to encourage honest feedback and candid comments, read his writings. The acronym means "management by wandering around" and the premise is that if you expose yourself to enough people enough of the time, you are going to hear things that you may not have come across.

For many reasons, people will hold back or shelter the boss from certain information or things. 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 these things. Those who don't, probably don't really want to know.


Leadership Coach


John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of, 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...

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