DON’T ASK IF YOU ARE NOT PREPARED TO ACT ON WHAT YOU HEAR

I recently encountered the following story.

A supervisor initiated an employee opinion survey designed, among other things, to identify what the staff thought of their performance as a manager.  The supervisor promised the responses would be anonymous and had arranged to have another staff member filter out identities before they reviewed a summary of the results.  Over a weekend, the supervisor spied the completed survey’s stacked on the staff member’s desk and could not resist a quick peek.  Angered by some of the critical performance feedback contained in the surveys, this boss knew exactly who had said what because the identities had not yet been removed.  According to the storyteller, the supervisor subsequently demonstrated no intention of acting on any of the feedback critical or otherwise, and showed every intention of bearing a grudge against those who had dared to be critical.

Over my years as a manager, I solicited performance feedback from many subordinates, both individually and from some fairly large groups.  I wish I could tell you that it was always overwhelmingly positive and a joy.  But that would be a lie.  Some of it was harsh, some of it was embarrassing, a lot of it was humbling.  It was especially humbling to be criticized for behavior I had no idea would generate the negative interpretation it did. Never-the-less, I always understood that having asked for the feedback, I would need to do something with what I heard.

It helps to think about the act of asking somebody for feedback as an unstated but clearly implied CONTRACT.  Specifically, “you tell me what you think and I will listen respectively and respond appropriately”.  Fulfilling this contract is a sign of human respect.  Refusing to act on or respond appropriately to what you hear, seems a lot like “needlessly being jerked around” from the perspective of those from whom you requested the feedback. Why waste somebody’s time if you have no intention of listening or responding to what you hear?  Worse, how manipulative to ask others what they think, if your intention is to carry a grudge against those whose answers are not what you want to hear.  This is disrespectful, petty, and immature.

How candid are the subordinates of the above supervisor likely to be in the future?  Not very I suspect.  This supervisor has probably cut themselves off from potentially important lines of communication essential if their organization is to function as a smoothly operating team.  This supervisor’s actions have undoubtedly undermined trust, damaged morale, and mortgaged their potential as a leader.

Effective managers and leaders must often ask people to undertake difficult and sometimes unreasonable things. Inherent in those requests is the belief among followers that they can trust and rely upon the word of the person in charge.  Asking for and then ignoring the input of others, constitutes a breaking of the implicit contract or promise embodied in the feedback request.

It might help to consider some of the possible negative interpretations subordinates might place on a manager’s asking for feedback, then ignoring what they hear:  you are a phony who only wishes to appear to be doing the right thing by asking for feedback; you are insecure and immature and can not handle an honest critical response; or you are deceitful and Machiavellian having asked for feedback simply to identify, and perhaps act against, those who might see some fault in you.

None of these possible interpretations are very flattering and none will enhance a manager’s ability to do her or his job.  So if you do not intend to listen to or respond appropriately to feedback you request, do not bother to ask for it at all.

 

One comment

  1. nICE PIECE. It became obvious to me as a discipline coordinator, department chairman, and division chairman in Higher Education, that some underlings will hate you solely for the reason that you, not they, are the boss. I can’t tell you how happy I am that I now work only for myself: no bosses above me, no underlings to shepherd.

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