Upward feedback is critical to a leader’s growth trajectory. It is an angle of feedback that is rare. This form of evaluation comes from an important vantage point. The most valuable resource you have. The people you lead.
In my professional world here in Acworth, Georgia; I have the opportunity to serve as our community’s Director of Parks, Recreation, and Community Resources. We have incredible Organizational Depth as an organization and have intentionally recruited and retained extremely talented people. Our department’s pace of growth has been fast and our trajectory has been steep in the arenas of people, programs, projects, and parks.
With the department’s tremendous growth, I have grown extremely dependent on our Assistant Directors. The three of them lead our three major divisions within the department. They lead their teams well, which frees me up to be the leader I desire to be.
Culture starts at the top, but they influence our culture just as much or more than I do. With fast paced growth comes the challenge as a leader of making sure culture continues to get pressed throughout the organization. A few years ago, we implemented the upward evaluation system in our department. We started with the Assistant Directors. I sit down with the people they directly lead each year and ask them three simple questions.
- What is their greatest strength?
- What are their areas for improvement?
- Do you feel like they love and care for you? (Our organization’s culture statement)
The first two questions are skill based. The third question is culture based. That question has been effective in giving me affirmation that their leadership is aligning with our mission, vision, and core values. We have continued to work towards taking this evaluation tool deeper into our organization.
I have shared this concept many times with individuals outside our organization on how upward feedback is critical to a leader’s growth trajectory. So…get this! I have never once asked for our Assistant Directors to evaluate me! Great leadership, huh?
Now, it does not mean that I do not ask the standard questions during their annual evaluations on what I can do to help them with their growth. The problem is when I do this, it is poor timing. I am selfishly high jacking an opportunity for them to get better to know what I can do better. The upward feedback process demands dedicated time where they can adequately share their thoughts about my performance.
Things needed to change, so this past week, they each evaluated me individually. I wanted to share four lessons I learned on the value of this process:
Soliciting Upward Feedback Requires Genuine Listening
Listening is an art. It requires discipline, effort, and your undivided attention to the person you are communicating with. If the person sitting in front of you does not feel like they are the most important thing in your world at that given time, you are doing it wrong. Hear this, we all struggle with listening. Our undivided attention is under constant attack by distractions.
Do Not Ask Questions
Headed into their time to evaluate me, I knew I needed to do two things. One, as stated earlier, I needed to genuinely listen. Two, be discipline and not ask any questions. You are probably asking yourself, if it helps you understand what they are feeling, then why commit to not asking questions? What kind of active listening process is this? You write a leadership blog?
To let you into my brain, it has difficulty computing broad stroke statements. It wants to dive into those statements and dissect them, find the meaning behind them, and solve the problem buried in there. Some of you may be able to relate to this. My coping mechanism for this inability to compute these statements is to questions ask for clarity.
The reason I chose to not ask questions during THEIR evaluation of me is simple. I did not want to come across as defensive. If I appear defensive, especially if they have a frustration with me, then I am not giving them a safe place to communicate those feelings. What I learned is, the dialogue we had following the formal part of the evaluation created more understanding than any question I could have asked.
Conduct it in Neutral Territory
Create a safe place for the feedback to take place by doing it in neutral territory. This form of feedback, or really any angle of feedback should never be done from behind a desk. Use a conference room, go for a walk, grab a cup of coffee, or any place that makes you appear more human and less like their boss. Neutral makes you normal.
Creative a Culture Where it is Safe to Give Upward Feedback
At some point, every leader has uttered the famous words, “if you have concerns, my door is always open.” Does your team truly feel that way?
Every leader wants to believe that their team is comfortable in coming to them whenever they have upward feedback, especially frustrations. It is common to come to your leader to vent frustrations with peers, subordinates and customers. It is less common to share their feedback about you, with you.
In our department, we talk about a concept called “Positional Intimidation.” Those words can sound harsh and seems more like a tactic utilized by poor leaders. Stick with me for a second. No matter how much you reinforce that you welcome and desire your team’s honest feedback, there is always some level of natural intimidation by your position. Note that I did not say intentional intimidation.
When you are soliciting feedback from your team, a good leader does not ever intend to make someone feel this way. By bringing this to your attention, I simply want to challenge you to increase your desire and intentionality to make this process safe for them. Keep this in mind. It may not be a single thing that you have done to the person. It could have been a condition developed under a past leader or authority figure in their life.
I do have a confession to make. I stayed disciplined and did not ask any questions during the evaluation process, but I did end our time together with one. It was an extremely important question for me to know the answer to. I asked, “Do you feel that I am grateful for you?”
I had one nagging fear going into the process. What if the answer to that questions was, “no.” I would have probably felt like a complete failure as a leader and been devastated by the response.
I want to close with two messages people have shared with me over the years when it comes to the importance of how you make people feel.
Butch Price, my former Elementary School Principal and current City Alderman said to me in casual conversation one time that, “people may not remember what you said to them, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
J.R. Lee, a friend and a pastor in our community at Freedom Church said, “Gratitude is never silent.” He also conveyed in the message that we are all internally grateful people, we just do not always speak it outwardly.
I feel like I can never write enough notes, send enough texts, draft the right email, or share with them in person my sincere gratitude for the work that the three of them do. Fortunately, the answer was, “yes.” Out of all the feedback I received that day, that meant the most.
The good news is that I think they want keep me on the team! I received insightful, heartfelt, and invaluable feedback on the things they felt like I do well and the things I need to improve upon. Upward Feedback is critical to a leader’s growth. Period. Jeff Chase, Kim Watt, and Neely Motiejunas made me better through this process! I am grateful for them.
Ordinary to Extraordinary Intersection
Are you soliciting upward feedback? Are you creating a culture where your team feels safe to share their frustrations about you, with you? How do you make your people feel? Is your gratitude silent or spoken?