Question: You talk in the book about how important it is for managers to be aware of their impact on employees. But how do you get reliable information about your impact, especially the negative aspects? From whom should you get it, and how much can you trust it?
Answer: A former mayor of New York City used to walk the streets and call out, “How am I doing?!” to passersby, shopkeepers, and residents looking out from their apartment windows. He’d get some thumbs up and some thumbs down but almost always a smile. His theatrical directness was endearing.
It seems when the mayor wanted to know about his impact, he’d just hit the streets and ask. Sounds like a reasonable enough strategy. At least in politics. But between a boss and a subordinate, it’s unrealistic to expect straight talk. Bosses wield authority and power. And let’s face it: honesty isn’t always the best policy when speaking to power.
Employees tend to keep negative impressions to themselves. Annoyances, anxieties, and disappointments usually remain unspoken or get expressed in the most indirect, disguised ways. It’s safer that way… no risk of offending or antagonizing the boss; no risk of retaliation. In an organizational setting, explicit, upward feedback is inhibited by the danger of retribution.
Even when a manager invites a critique, it’s the rare employee who comes right out and says, “Your inability to make a decision and stick to it has our entire team paralyzed and on edge.” or “Your condescending attitude is intimidating and infuriating. It has all of us looking for another job.” or “Your endless speeches in our meetings are like chloroform.”
This is exactly why anonymous “feedback instruments” are overused. They implicitly warrant that employees will be protected from management reprisals because their identities remain unknown. Unfortunately, the candor that might be encouraged by anonymity is more than offset by: (1) the hopelessly general questions in an all-purpose feedback survey, (2) the non-specific answers that employees give (especially when they have something uncomplimentary to say), and (3) the understandable tendency of managers to spend more time guessing who wrote what than benefitting from the assessment.
The truth is, employees “speak” to you about your impact, not so much in words as in codes: They make oblique references to your flaws, they reflect your imperfections in their facial expressions, body postures, gestures, actions, and reactions. This is just the way it is when managerial authority is part of the equation. And yet it turns out that foraging for information about your impact isn’t the hard part. It’s being attentive and receptive to the wealth of information that’s already available.
So if you really want to know how you’re doing, ask less and observe more. Open your eyes as much as your mouth and ears. Notice the subtle, fugitive, nonverbal signs of confusion or misunderstanding, of irritation or avoidance, of insecurity, discomfort, or boredom. These are the most reliable indicators of your impact on your management relationships. And they’re often right before your eyes.