Dear Employee, How Am I Doing As Your Manager?

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5 min

Written by: Tobias Günther

“How am I doing as your manager? Do you have any feedback for me?”

Such an interesting question. But also a difficult one.

In all of my 20 years as a founder and manager, it was the question I was most reluctant to ask my employees. And I know that they dreaded it, too: my question was often followed by a bit of awkward silence, then a polite but hollow answer like “Umm… I think you’re doing great.”

I know many leaders experience something similar: their own reluctance to ask for feedback; and their employees’ reluctance to provide it.

But why is it so difficult to ask our direct reports for feedback?

It’s an interesting puzzle that’s worth unraveling.

Facing Our Insecurities

One of the obvious reasons is that we’re not exactly keen on facing our insecurities. If we’re honest, the prospect of receiving critical feedback makes us a little uncomfortable. After all, who likes having their own shortcomings and weaknesses pointed out to them?

But there’s also a lot of good news:

  • First, because this is absolutely normal. The overwhelming majority of humans (employees and managers alike) start to feel a bit queasy when they hear the term “feedback.”
  • Second, because this is a classic case of something that gets better with practice. The more often we muster the courage, the more often we’ll see that life goes on. No matter if the feedback we received was positive or negative.
  • Third, and most importantly, because we can learn a couple of things that make this whole process less uncomfortable. For all parties involved.

Becoming Better At Asking for Feedback

Let’s revisit my example from the beginning: “How am I doing as your manager? Do you have any feedback for me?

Frankly, if I were the recipient of this question, I’d be overwhelmed.

First of all, simply because the question is coming from my manager. That’s someone who has a certain say about my future here in this organization. This is already enough to make me careful and a bit shy.

But on top of this, the question is poorly phrased: it’s much too broad and much too big. Evaluating your manager in general…?!? That’s a daunting task.

We can reduce the pressure by making the question both smaller and more specific: “Regarding the new project that I introduced yesterday: what’s one thing that I could have mentioned, but haven’t? Anything that would be interesting for you to know?

You can even go further and give your direct report a heads-up. E.g. by sending them an email a day before your one-on-one that allows them to prepare: “Hey Martin, I’m looking forward to our one-on-one tomorrow. Just to give you a little heads-up: I’m going to ask you about the new project I introduced yesterday in our all-hands meeting. Maybe there’s something I failed to mention, but that you’d be interested in. I’m writing this today so you have some time to think about it and see if anything comes up. See you tomorrow.

We don’t have to go to such lengths every time. But we need to remember that exchanging feedback is no small thing. We’re doing ourselves and our direct report a favor if we try not to overwhelm each other: by asking small, specific questions. And additionally, at least sometimes, by giving them the opportunity to prepare ahead of time.

Building Real Relationships, Beyond Our Roles

But one mystery still needs to be solved: the fact that it was easier with some of my employees than with others.

I knew it wasn’t about the individual people: they were all capable and friendly human beings. The difference was in our relationships. I could divide them into two basic categories.

With some of them, my relationship was quite superficial.They knew my professional role as their manager, but not much else. Or, to put it more bluntly: I had been hiding behind my leadership role. I had kept them at arm’s length, not sharing much about myself as a person.

This is an easy trap to fall into, without noticing it. Assuming the role of a manager can easily inhibit us. We’re trying to uphold a certain image of ourselves: of someone who’s in control. Someone who has it figured out. Someone who, on the outside, seems to be mostly free of the usual human baggage (like doubts, worries, mistakes, and all that wonderful stuff…).

When we’ve done this enough times — when we’ve pretended to be unshakable, infallible superhumans — we’ve created an image in our employees’ minds. And we’re going to want to live in accordance with this image. Which means that it’s getting harder and harder to be a real human being, with weaknesses and insecurities.

With others, I had managed to build a real human relationship. I had shared more about myself and my life beyond just my leadership role. Those were the people where exchanging feedback worked best. Our relationship provided a sense of safety that made it possible for us to “take risks” — because every time we exchange feedback, we take a small risk. And this is safest if we’ve built a trusting relationship beforehand.

* * *

I know that some schools of management consider relationships a superfluous nice-to-have. After all, “you’re their manager, not their friend.” But this misses the point. It’s not necessary to become “Best Buddies” with everyone. It is necessary, however, to show up as a complete human being — with more than just tasks and todos. More and more scientific research shows that healthy relationships are an essential prerequisite for trust, commitment, and innovation.

My own experience as a founder and leader confirms this. When I stopped hiding behind my role as a manager and instead showed up as a human, a fascinating chain reaction started: strong human relationships emerged… which allowed trust to emerge… which made things like feedback, commitment, and accountability possible.

All of this is crucial if we want to make it easier to ask our direct reports for feedback. But it’s also the recipe for a sustainable, successful business in general.

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