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.