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How On Earth Do You Get Feedback When You Are The Boss?

How on earth do you get feedback when you are the boss?

It is impossible to lead an organisation when you don’t know what is going on. Yet the more senior you are the more difficult it is for people to tell you bad news. What is even more difficult to say is “Boss you are doing some things that are getting in the way”.

I have seen several examples recently of senior leaders explicitly asking for feedback and being told only warm positive things. If that is what you are hearing it is very tempting to think there is nothing else they are not saying but you would be highly unusual if that were the case.

So why the reluctance to give the boss feedback, even when you are asking for it? There could be a number of reasons, such as

History. They saw someone give feedback to the previous boss and then get their legs chopped off. Even if it was only metaphorically.

Culture. This could be a national culture or an organisational culture but maybe the accepted way of doing things around here does not include challenging your “superiors”.

Let someone else say it. I know lots of people in the team think the same as me so I am sure one of them will say it.

Family patterns. We all have our patterns of behaving, often strongly influenced during our growing up. In my family we were brought up to be positive and supportive, not to say anything that might lead to an argument. It took me a long time to work out how to challenge without damaging the relationship.

Mixed messages. You say you want feedback from me but when I do offer anything you give me a big rationale for why you shouldn’t do anything differently.


So given that the predominant wind direction is against giving you, the boss, feedback, how do you get people to be frank with you?

1 Be prepared to keep asking. People might not respond straight away but over time they will start to believe that you do want to know.

2 Ask in a very particular way. Balanced questions are always helpful because people will want to tell you what you are doing well also. The best way is to load your questions with assumptions. Eg

  • What am I doing that is helpful to you
  • What am I doing that is less than helpful?
  • What else do you need of me?

The second question has an assumption that there will be things you are doing that get in the way. That makes it easier for people to tell you things. They know it won’t come as a shock to you and you are unlikely to be defensive. This is very different to just asking “Is there any feedback you want to give me?” which invites a guessing game of What is she open to hearing?

3 Check your own motivation. Do you really want to know? Are you open to people having ideas that are different to yours or challenging some of your long held habits or how you see yourself? Bear in mind that leadership is a negotiated relationship. There is no perfect shape, just an agreement about what works for both/all of us in the context we are in.

Lots of our work is about helping people have the conversations they need to have in order to do the brilliant work they want to do. If you want to know more visit

If your challenge is from the other side ie how to give your boss feedback, here’s an HBR article you might find helpful.


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