Every Human Resources officer will tell you that their organization has a feedback culture. Some even have “360” feedback mechanisms, whereby evaluations don’t only flow top-down, but people are also given the opportunity to feed back on their managers and directors. But few organizations actually want feedback, and I can tell simply from the way they seek it.

Giving lip service to feedback is better than nothing, but leaders need to realize that without taking the initiative to create a safe space for feedback–building a bridge strong enough to bear the weight of truth*–there’s really no point in asking. I see time and time again leaders making comments like “feedback is always welcome,” and then are surprised when none comes in. 

That doesn’t mean everybody is happy. It means that you haven’t done the work to build the requisite trust.**

In recent years, I’ve made an effort with my teams to take the first step by identifying a few things–at least three–that I believe I could have done or be doing better. This makes clear that I fully expect to get some constructive criticisms and signals that I’m fully aware that I’m a work in progress. I’ve found that doing this self-reflection work can even turn negatives into positives. When I have failed to support a team member, acknowledging it to them can actually help build more of a bond than having quietly done everything right in the first place, because they start to feel that I really get it and understand them. 

I’ve also found that how I give feedback influences the quality of feedback I receive. When I first started managing people, before I fully appreciated the value of an open feedback culture, I would be very general with praise. I thought I was being encouraging, but in reality it was lazy and unhelpful, especially contrasted with critical feedback that tends to be very specific. In a way, I was signaling that I was noticing the nitpicky points, but not looking as closely at the success stories. 

Now, I try to be as specific with positive feedback as I am with criticism, and I’m explicit about pointing out areas where I know a team member has more knowledge than I do. I’ve found this approach to be empowering for both of us, building trust and modeling the kind of feedback that I welcome from them in return. 

Seeking feedback is real work, and the burden of responsibility is on you, not the person you want to get it from. How you might build that bridge is up to you; every leader has her own style of managing relationships. But self-awareness and genuine concern are hard requirements in any case, and a little vulnerability might help generate outsized returns. 

So if you’re in any position of authority and ask for feedback without doing the self-reflection work first to create a safe space for it, don’t expect to get any. And by extension, don’t expect your teams to feel any dedication to you as their leader. 


*Credit: Dr. Tim Elmore with this framing, which I absolutely love.

**I’d argue that this is true even in the most perfectly functioning, happiest workplace imaginable, simply because we are human. One major bug of the human psyche is our ability to always find a more aspirational reference point to compare against (because we are wired to make ourselves feel miserable), and our ability to simply adjust our norms and get used to, rather than consciously appreciate, even the most luxurious of blessings. If you’re interested, read up on reference group bias and hedonic adaptation. In short, it means that even in the most perfect workplace imaginable, there will always be little grumbles and nuggets of feedback to be mined.