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3 Critical Questions Executives Must Ask to Elicit Feedback

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Smart leaders know -- and researchers agree -- that they’re significantly more effective when they can solicit candid feedback. But how can you get an honest assessment of your leadership skills without employees being worried about possible negative ramifications? Well, it can be tricky.

For starters, executives should ensure their team is providing three categories of information. I call it the "Feedback Trifecta":

  1. Feedback about your own leadership and the impact of your behavior on others.
  2. Feedback about what your organization’s customers want and need, information you may be too removed to know first hand.
  3. Feedback about your business strategy, operations and, in general, how the business is being run.

Are you confident that your employees are providing this information to you?

Your answer may depend on the culture you have built at your company. If the workplace environment is one of fear and mistrust, it is extremely unlikely people will feel comfortable giving their unvarnished opinions. This needs to change.

Related: The Best Way to Avoid Toxic Hires Is to Articulate Your Company Values

Building a culture of candor.

We now know that candor isn’t achieved through edicts. If that’s the case, then, how can it be built?

The best way to begin is with your immediate team. Even though this may be a relatively small group of people, it is unusual for honest feedback simply appear naturally. And just like we saw with our executive, it can’t exist without trust.

Adopt the mindset that earning your team’s trust is part of your job description. Are you being open about your weaknesses, flaws and intentions? If not, that’s a good place to start (I provide some actionable tools to build trust in my book, Bankable Leadership). You can then build on that foundation by asking your team for their feedback. Start with innocuous questions and work your way up to the tougher ones.

Related: How Arguments Can Move a Business Forward

As immediate team members become more candid, celebrate this! Then, ask them to widen the circle of candor to their own teams. They must state that these types of conversations aren’t just safe to have, they’re critical for the business. Ideally, they’ll even share how open you are to feedback, even the kind that’s tough to hear: This is how you create “candor momentum.”

Once you see some momentum, then it’s time to ask the questions that need asking. Things like, “What do our customers want that you see that I’m missing?”  Or “What do you see about our business that isn’t working that you think I might not be seeing at my level?”

The unbreakable rule of feedback.

Once your employees have given you feedback, there is one rule that you cannot break:  You must do something with it.

There are different ways you can circle back with people who provide you feedback. If you lead a large organization, you might have quarterly all-employee web conferences. If you’re the founder of a startup, you might gather your employees together weekly over beers. Regardless of your approach, it’s vital to do two things.

First, acknowledge the feedback you received and thank them. Seeing someone getting praised for providing constructive feedback primes others if they’ve been hesitant.

Second, tell them what you’re going to do about it. This doesn’t mean you have to act on everything -- often, there’s a legitimate reason to hold off. Be transparent about your reasons. If you tell them the truth, most employees are actually quite reasonable.

The value of a loving critic.

There are two givens for every executive: people who find fault in everything you do and those who tell you you’re doing everything perfectly. Neither group is helpful to you.

The ability to cultivate loving critics is difficult, but the best leaders learn to master it.

You, too, can build a culture of candor. When you do, you’ll see the proof: happy people and bottom-line business results.

Related: How to Increase Your Impact While Reducing Your Effort