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As a manager, how often do you ask for feedback?

Guest post by Dr. Jana Niemann

Recently, I had lunch with a manager who was worrying that he may not be effective enough in motivating and inspiring his employees. My first question to him was: “What do your employees think about this?” To my surprise, he conceded that he did not know: he had never directly asked them for feedback on the topic. Although the notion of seeking feedback from one’s employees seems rather obvious, the sad reality is that managers often hesitate to do so.

Whereas there may be many barriers to actively seeking feedback from one’s employees, I want to focus on interpersonal insecurity as one such feedback-seeking blocker. Interpersonal insecurity implies that individuals feel unable to anticipate others’ behavior and do not know how to cope effectively in interpersonal situations. This feeling of uncertainty likely prevents managers from seeking downward performance feedback because they feel unable to cope with the challenging interaction that might follow. If managers feel interpersonally insecure, they probably have a latent fear that their employees might hesitate to express their true opinion or that they might blatantly criticize them. This could result in awkward situations that undermine the manager’s authority and competence, especially if the criticism comes unexpectedly and the manager is unable to react adequately to it.

To assess whether interpersonal insecurity indeed prevents managers from seeking their employee’s feedback, we conducted a series of studies wherein we either measured or manipulated managers’ interpersonal insecurity. We found that those managers who feel insecure in interpersonal situations are more reluctant to ask their subordinates for feedback than those who feel secure. Importantly, we also found that especially those managers who had higher power and influence in their organizations, were less likely to seek feedback if they felt interpersonally uncertain. This finding is highly problematic, given that, managers cannot ‘correct’ their behavior without feedback and employees will rarely volunteer feedback to their direct managers  – especially to those that are extremely powerful. Ultimately, providing negative feedback or criticizing those who hold power and influence in organizations could possibly backfire to the employee who provides the criticism. Therefore, actively seeking feedback becomes crucial if one is serious about developing oneself and others.

Our findings emphasize once more, the problematic nature of promoting people to management positions based on their technical or job-specific skills instead of also paying attention to their social skills. Given that supervisory success depends on the ability to lead and motivate one’s employees, managers who feel insufficiently equipped to handle feedback-seeking situations, may lack crucial information to improve their leadership skills.

So what are some possible solutions?

  • Provide managers with training aimed at improving their social competencies
  • Implement team-building exercises to strengthen interpersonal confidence
  • Sensitize employees to the fact that managers’ reluctance to seek feedback may result from an experienced uncertainty in a socially challenging situation
  • Encourage employees to actively provide feedback to their supervisors
  • Implement regular formal feedback processes, such as 360° degree feedback

Every good manager will once in a while question his or her leadership skills. The key to overcome these doubts and to become a better manager is to avoid sticking one’s head in the sand and to actively seek feedback from one’s employees. Remember, that also Steve Jobs included “Asking for feedback” into his rules for success .

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About Jana Niemann

Jana Niemann received her PhD in Organizational Psychology from the University of Groningen in April 2013. Her dissertation focuses on feedback-seeking behavior and reactions to feedback in organizations. Niemann has presented her work at various international conferences, such as the Academy of Management, where one of her papers was chosen to be included in the best paper proceedings. Currently, Niemann works as a lecturer at the University of Groningen. You can read more about her work here. Connect with Jana on LinkedIn