• Getting feedback when you’re the Boss

    Receiving feedback when you’re the boss can be challenging. If you’re responsible for performance, compensation, and have the authority to fire someone, then you’re in a position of power. And if you’re in a position of power, you’re unlikely to get candid feedback from direct reports by asking them outright. Even if you’re not someone’s direct boss, but are in a leadership position, it can be challenging to get candid feedback by asking. And the bigger the gap in position, the more pronounced this is likely to be (e.g., the CEO can’t simply ask a junior employee for feedback and expect an authentic response).

    You can always pick up on implicit feedback indirectly through your interactions, but that’s less valuable than receiving explicit feedback. Some organizations have formalized processes in place to facilitate upwards feedback (e.g., ‘360 degree’ reviews), which can be valuable tools but are insufficient in totality. Whether you have a formalized 360 review process or not, there are some tactics I’ve found useful in facilitating a feedback conversation as the boss.

    1. Ask the question “what would you do differently in my shoes?”

      This feels safer to respond to than “what could I be doing better?”, even though you might receive a similar response. It can be asked generally and in reference to a specific topic or decision.

    2. If your direct report previously had a boss in a similar position, try “what are 1 to 3 things you admired about your previous boss that I might be able to learn from?”

      I’ve found this to be highly effective, albeit there’s some nuance in that your direct report might admire something you already do well or isn’t as relevant for you.

    3. If your direct report hasn’t had a boss in a similar position, you can try “Is there a previous leader you’ve particularly admired? If someone comes to mind, is there anything I could learn from their leadership qualities?”

      Similar but less useful than #2, as it becomes more general.

    4. Ask your direct report “What advice would you have for me on this topic?”

      This works well in drawing candour but is likely only in reference to a specific topic.

    5. Ask your direct report for 1-3 things you should ‘stop, start, and continue’.

      Phrasing it in a simple and common performance framework can make the question more approachable but I’ve had limited success with this one, likely because of the explicit nature.

    6. Ask them outright. “I’m keen to learn and improve. What are some areas for improvement you can share with me?”

      Due to the power imbalance and dynamic this may not uncover much. Even with folks you have a high degree of psychological safety and trust with. It may work better with more direct personalities.

    If you read this and have any other good suggestions to share, I’d love to hear them.

  • No one likes a shit sandwich

    One of my first jobs was a Snowboard instructor. When I was 16, I spent my winter weekends teaching at Blue Mountain through a ski and snowboard club called Ravens, which transported kids to Collingwood from Toronto. During my first year, I taught beginners – mostly kids aged 8 to 12 who had never been on a snowboard before. Anyone who has learned to Snowboard knows the first few days really suck. You spend a lot of time on your bum, hands, and knees. It’s a lot of getting up and falling down while you get comfortable balancing on your edges.

    Instructing beginners involves demonstrating the basic elements of how to turn and providing a lot of feedback. You’re constantly pointing out what to do differently and trying various tips to see what lands with the learners. “Bend your knees!” “Keep your back straight!”

    Becoming a level 1 instructor is fairly easy. I had to demonstrate a basic-to-intermediate riding competency, and then learned varying techniques, tips, and training tricks as part of an instructor’s course. During the course, I received my first introduction to the shit sandwich feedback method. The shit sandwich feedback method goes like this: start by giving a compliment or saying something encouraging (top bun), then give some critical feedback (shit meat), before ending with some nice words (bottom bun). “Hey Sarah, you’re doing great out there! Next time, make sure your knees are wider than your ankles over the board. You’ve got this!”.

    Fast forward a few years. My first job after University was an Investment Banking Analyst and in my second year I was tasked with leading the summer intern training program. Before the interns arrived, I participated in a brief instructor’s session where I was surprised to be re-introduced to… you guessed it… the shit sandwich feedback method! Exact same concept, very different application.  “Hey Max, love that you’re digging through the company’s annual report! Next time, don’t forget to check if they have any Restricted Stock Units outstanding when you’re calculating the fully diluted share count. Great initiative though – you’ll get it next time!”

    If you’ve ever had a manager use the shit sandwich feedback method on you, you’ll know it gets old, fast. The pattern becomes obvious and as a result, you ignore the inauthentic initial compliment (top bun), the real feedback becomes diluted (shit meat), and the positive finisher doesn’t feel genuine (bottom bun). If you’re a manager, cut the buns and deliver the shit straight up. People generally want to improve and if you’re going to give someone valuable feedback, go bun free. There are plenty of other opportunities to share praise, encouraging comments, and positive feedback. At a minimum, remove one of the buns. Your team members will thank you for it.

  • Ask for Feedback. Do it. Often.

    I have been working in professional team environments for thirteen years and I can count the number of times someone has specifically and directly asked me for feedback outside of a formal review process on one hand.