The company’s general manager called me into his office, sat me down, and told me that one of my teammates had told him I was being too strict about them leaving the office early. He suggested I take things easy. Now, it really wasn’t my intention to restrict people and I actually thought I delivered my message pretty well. Of course, that didn’t matter. In the end, that’s how I made my team feel.
This was my first leadership role, back when I was barely two years into the industry. I, unfortunately, didn’t take this situation very well.
The rest of the time I was working with this particular teammate, it was never the same relationship. I couldn’t talk to him the way I used to, mainly due to my own biases about what happened. I just couldn’t (and actually didn’t even try to) understand why he told on me.
In hindsight, I’ve since realized it was really simple – he didn’t feel safe enough talking to me about the issue and felt safer talking to the general manager.
Ultimately, if your team or your peers aren’t willing to give you feedback directly, it’s probably you and not them.
How do I know it’s happening?
If you’re not quite sure if this is becoming a problem for you, here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- Do you have no idea how your colleagues actually feel about working with you?
- Do you often hear from others, including your boss, that someone else in the team has some issues with you?
- Do you feel that you need to keep surveys and feedback channels anonymous in order to get meaningful feedback?
All of the above situations are signs that your team and even your peers aren’t feeling safe about talking to you.
Why does it happen?
Safety is a complicated thing. People have different thresholds as to how much conflict or stress they can take before they decide it’s not worth it. The way you act around day-to-day conversations often plays a big factor in how they come to a conclusion. Look out for these bad precedents.
You’re argumentative, even about the little things. I don’t have statistics on this, so feel free to correct me, but I’m keen to believe that a strong majority of people don’t really like arguing. If you have a reputation of being argumentative, most people are likely to decide they’re better off being silent on the issue (or working around you completely) than having to defend their thoughts.
You’re dismissive or frequently shut down people’s opinions and feelings. Likewise to the above, one thing many people don’t like is having to defend their own opinions. An opinion is often something one feels regardless of the facts, and there’s really no point trying to defend it. Telling people they’re wrong to feel the way they do is a quick way to get them to withdraw from the conversation.
You obviously don’t want it. You can encourage your team to give you feedback as much as you want, but if your heart is not in a place of actually wanting to have an anchor for change, it’s going to show.
The organization as a whole is not built for it. This may be a stretch beyond your influence, but sometimes, the organization you operate in may not exactly be conducive to safe feedback. It goes both ways, too. Organizations are sometimes afraid to give feedback to their employees, afraid of offending and eventually losing them.
How do I fix it?
There are several things you can do to address the situation, though there’s no one cure to fix all problems. Think about these suggestions and see if they apply to your context.
Make sure you feel safe giving feedback. If you don’t, chances are your team doesn’t either. One quick solution to this is to create a “safety bubble” and establish with your team that their feedback will not get them in trouble with the higher-ups. Guarantee them anonymity if needed. But the sooner you get to fixing the root of the safety issue, the better it will be for everyone. Bubbles tend to burst at some point.
Recognize that feedback is about other people’s experience with you, and not about you. How you perceive yourself is not relevant in this matter and you don’t have to explain or defend yourself. If you must, explain the situation instead, if it contributes to adding perspective.
Talk to your team frequently and consistently. Show them that, regardless of your reputation at this point, you’re genuinely interested in knowing about how they feel. Safety doesn’t happen by default. Creating safety is an active effort.
Ask for feedback only when you actually want it. At Synacy, we’ve designed our peer feedback process to be completely transparent and to be initiated only by the person receiving feedback. Forcing a feedback process on people only makes it mechanical and generally meaningless. Likewise, as a leader, ask for feedback only when you actually intend to improve something. A “heat check” is only useful if you’re prepared to fight the fires.
Create safety when you provide feedback. The way you give feedback to other people tends to reflect on how you receive feedback. If you’re kind and constructive in your feedback, it makes people realize you’re probably open to receiving it as well. At the same time, you set a good model and framework for people giving feedback to each other in your organization.
Actions speak louder..
No matter how much you establish with your team that it’s safe to give feedback and that you want feedback, your actions (or to be specific, your reactions) will always be more telling.
Every moment you react adversely to feedback – whether by defending yourself or worse, retaliating – gets people thinking more and more that it’s better to stay silent. It’s human to be taken aback when you realize your perception didn’t actually match reality. But as a leader (or even as a peer), you’ll find you’ll often need to actively take time to process things before reacting.
As for that situation I found myself in with my coworker, I’m now pretty clear on what I should have done. I should have talked to him to get more insight on how he felt and made sure to acknowledge that his thoughts mattered. I guess I was too young to realize it. You can definitely do better.
Dexter is an engineering manager at Synacy, a co-founder of ATeam Business Software Solutions, and founder of TechManagement.Life. He loves to share his experiences and thoughts on managing software teams and running businesses.