Building an environment that encourages feedback is easier said than done.
Four years after starting NerdWallet, I asked several employees to provide unfiltered, anonymous feedback on how I was doing as CEO. They didn’t hold anything back. Their feedback was enlightening and, to be honest, a bit jarring. It led me to make major changes to the company, and to myself. It also made me realize that if I didn’t create an environment in which people felt comfortable giving me and other company leaders feedback, we would be stuck in a reality distortion field. The organization would cater to my happiness, rather than to its success.
Receiving feedback as a leader is extremely challenging. It’s so easy to live in denial, inadvertently suppressing feedback with the most benign actions—even just a slightly terse response or a furrowed brow.
As I’ve worked to build an environment in which employees are comfortable with giving feedback, I’ve seen, and made, my fair share of mistakes. Building this environment is easier said than done—here are some common pitfalls (and how to avoid them).
Mistake #1: Putting the onus on the giver of feedback instead of the receiver
Many leaders focus on providing their teams with tactics for deliveringfeedback—give a compliment sandwich, put yourself in their shoes—and are surprised when the feedback doesn’t come. Instead, leaders should treat upward feedback as more than a shared responsibility; they take on the lion’s share of the work to make sure they’re getting feedback transparently and consistently.
One way I’ve done this is through casual, small-group lunches with employees across the organization. The lunches are a proactive way to keep a pulse on everything, surface roadblocks, hear new ideas, and build more trusted relationships. My company has also instituted a bimonthly, internal, anonymous employee survey, which provides a constant feedback loop between management and employees and reinforces how much the management team values feedback. The insights gleaned through this quantitative and qualitative feedback guide much of what the management team discusses, addresses and prioritizes.
Mistake #2: Approaching feedback with insecurity rather than confidence
Defensiveness due to insecurity, stubbornness due to arrogance, and unwarranted confidence all drive bad decision-making. Ineffective leaders argue louder when others don’t see their point of view; they reach impasses when concerns are voiced; and they assume those who disagree are just inexperienced or political. These attitudes are poisonous and have a negative impact on performance and culture.
Confident leaders are open-minded; they get curious when bright people with diverse perspectives don’t see things their way, and they ask questions to find breakthroughs in thinking. By replacing insecurity with confidence, tough issues are addressed and complex problems are solved.
Mistake #3: Overvaluing loyalty
Leaders that value loyalty above all run the risk of building teams that never question them, rather than building teams best suited to meet the company’s needs. When leaders build for loyalty, they are also often afraid to confront performance issues that may affect their relationships.
As my company has grown, we’ve certainly dealt with this. When you scale, you encounter the classic “what got us here won’t get us there” dilemma. The team that was great at starting a new company may not be as great at running an established one, and understandably, this can be really hard for leaders who’ve built strong relationships with their teams. But employees often know when needs have changed: They know when you no longer have the right people in certain roles, and that you should be searching for employees with skills the organization is lacking. Responding to this feedback from the organization is critical to breaking through to the next level.
Feedback is one of the most valuable tools at a leader’s disposal. That’s why it is so important to create an environment in which employees feel comfortable giving it openly, honestly and frequently.