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How Leaders in Education Organizations Can Get Honest Feedback from Their Employees
What is the hardest part of being a leader in the education sector? Leaders are the last to know anything! When leaders don’t get feedback from their teams, they cannot make the adjustments they need to make an organization thrive. Each organization measures success a little differently, but in the education sector, missions, goals, and outcomes all center around the students. When an organization isn’t thriving, it’s the students who ultimately suffer.
Being a leader is a challenging role—one that requires continuous reflection, self-awareness, and flexibility. It also comes with the burden of decisions you have to make, the psychological toll of risk you bear, and the interpersonal politics you need to juggle. We understand the stress that comes with being in charge and the increased gravity that comes when you realize your leadership’s strength impacts kids.
This guide provides the information you need to learn how to get honest feedback from your employees, including why you have information blind spots, how to ask for honest feedback from your team, the power of asking specific questions, and ways to accept negative feedback well.
Why Leaders Have Blind Spots
The most effective leadership occurs when managers and supervisors are ‘in the know,’ but getting your team members to share things with you openly isn’t always an easy task. Even when you keep an open-door policy, ask for honest feedback and assure them you can handle the truth—it never seems enough. Private meetings and taking team members out to lunch doesn’t seem to help eliminate your blind spots, either. Getting your team to open up to you requires you to understand the two main reasons they won’t: fear and futility.
If you have a leadership role in an education organization, you are in a power position above your teammates. This differential translates into an inherent power dynamic that underpins every interaction you have with your employees and injects some level of fear for your team. People worry about the repercussions of candidly sharing their thoughts with their supervisors. Some are fearful that you might treat them differently if they share too much or share the wrong information with you.
Although fear comes into play, futility plays a much larger role in why employees do not speak up at work. Research shows that futility is 1.8 times more powerful of an obstacle to feedback than fear. A 2009 Cornell National Social Survey revealed that 26 percent of employees reported withholding information due to a sense of futility compared to 20 percent who did not share information because they feared personal consequences. Employees believe that even if they share valuable information, it won’t lead to meaningful change. They don’t feel their opinion or idea will impact the outcome of any given situation. If you want to reduce or eliminate your information blind spots, your broad focus must overcome fear and futility.
How to Ask for Honest Feedback from Your Team
Suppose you are struggling to get the feedback you want and need for the project and goals you are working on in your educational organization. In that case, these tips can help you overcome the fear and futility your employees might be feeling:
Clearly State Your Intentions
Don’t make the mistake of assuming that your employees understand why getting feedback is essential to you. Be upfront, clear, and show vulnerability. If you want your team members to open up to you, you need to open up with them. Being transparent and showing vulnerability helps your employees feel comfortable directly giving you feedback. For example, when you broach the subject of transparent feedback with your team, you could say something like, “I feel a little disconnected from everyone, and that’s been bugging me. It’s my fault, and I’d like to make an effort to improve our connection.”
Ask Specific Questions
The questions you ask play a considerable part in the extent to which you get meaningful, honest feedback from your team. If you want answers about specific things, you need to ask specific questions. You cannot expect your employees to offer information randomly. Your questions not only need to be precise, but they should be relevant and well-thought-out. If you ask a general, half-hearted question, you will get a weak response.
Think about the last time you were someplace, and you ran into a friend you hadn’t seen in a while. You likely greeted him or her with a “Hi, how are you?” or a “Hi, how’s it going?” Your friend most likely responded with “Good,” “Fine,” or “Okay.” General questions elicit general responses. We have these types of exchanges every day. You need more from your team.
For example, ask, “What is one thing about the last team meeting we held that could’ve been better?” This specific question zeros in on one thing from one event and asks for an actionable takeaway. As a result, the responses you receive are far more likely to be focused and actionable, too. We offer more in-depth information about the power of specific questions later on.
Taking action on the feedback you receive is the most potent way to encourage your team members to be honest with you, virtually eliminating your blind spots. The steps you take go a long way to overcoming the futility factor mentioned above. Your team wants to see action when they provide feedback.
Pro Tip: DO NOT ask your team for anonymous feedback. Anonymous feedback breeds a culture of distrust, especially in small teams and organizations. When you ask for anonymous feedback, you inject poisonous suspicion and skepticism into your organization. Ultimately, this impacts your organizational goals. If your education organization’s culture goes awry, it’s the students who suffer.
Learn more about creating a culture of gratitude at your organization here.
Understanding the Power of Asking Specific Questions
Specific questions are a leader’s most underrated tool. Learning how to come up with the right questions will provide you with valuable information that you can use to impact your education organization positively. The most important rules for creating specific questions that inspire honest feedback from your team are:
- Pick one thing. Asking broad questions allows your employees to give general answers that cannot lead to actionable steps. Do not cast a wide net. Instead, focus on one thing you want feedback about.
- Focus on an event. You can uncover more information about how your employees feel about a specific item if you anchor your question in an event. For example, you can ask questions about a particular team meeting or one-on-one meeting.
- Time-box your question. Attach your question to a specific period to narrow the scope of responses. For example, you might focus on the last week or two weeks.
4 Questions You Should Ask Every Employee of Your Education Organization
If you are unsure exactly which types of specific questions you should ask your team members; that’s okay. As you continue to ask for honest feedback, you will get more comfortable coming up with specific questions and find out which ones get your team to talk. Remember that good feedback starts with asking a good question, so here are four questions you should ask every employee of your education organization:
Do you think the organization is the right size?
Growth comes with unintended consequences. Asking this question allows you to learn those consequences for your education organization.
Have you ever been afraid to suggest an idea at work because you thought someone might shoot it down?
Innovation occurs when there is a diversity of opinions. You ultimately want your organization to have an environment where dissenting opinions are encouraged, and everyone feels comfortable weighing in.
Do you feel like you’re spread too thin right now?
Employees who have too much on their plate do not perform well. Not only does a heavy load decrease productivity, but the stress and negativity of being spread too thin can rub off on others. It can also impact your organizational mission and goals, negatively affecting students. It’s essential to gauge the stress level of your team members. If you can identify potential burnout before it happens, you can stop the spread of negativity to other employees.
If someone asked you to describe the organization’s mission and vision, would a clear answer immediately come to mind?
Those who work in the education sector do so to impact lives. They are committed to ensuring all children have access to a good education. Sometimes employees lose track of an organization’s mission and goals. Having a shared vision and reminding your employees what that vision is helps motivate your team to do good work.
Go First: Getting Honest Feedback within Your Education Organization Begins with You
Given that fear plays a role in why employees do not give feedback, you need to take the first step and lead by example. When you are forthcoming and candid with your team members, you demonstrate that it is safe for them to speak up. Some ways you can create a safe space for your employees to communicate with you include:
Share Your Struggles
One of the best ways to “go first” is by sharing one of your struggles. You might feel a little vulnerable, but this is a good thing! You are modeling the honesty and sincerity you want from your team. As a result, you reduce or eliminate the anxiety and fear an employee may have about offering a critical opinion. For example, you can say, “I’m struggling with…,” or “Can you help me understand…?” You can also acknowledge that you do not have all the answers, and you are looking for your team to help you.
Play Devil’s Advocate with Your Opinion
Another way to “go first” is to challenge your own opinion in front of your team. The next time you’re explaining a new idea to your team or talking about a new project, pose an opposing viewpoint or criticism of the concept and then ask for feedback. This strategy reveals your flexibility and shows that you genuinely want to hear all ideas. You can try saying, “I could also take the devil’s advocate point-of-view and say XYZ. What do you think?” or “Another way to look at XYZ is ABC. Do you agree or disagree?”
Comment on Vulnerability When You See It
“Going first” also allows you to positively reinforce the behavior you want to see from your team members. If you want to receive meaningful, honest feedback more often, be sure to recognize it when it occurs publicly. For example, you can say, “That’s a great thought. Your honesty is appreciated and important to the team,” or “I’m so glad you disagree with me because it helps me look at this a different way,” or “Thank you for bringing that up. I’m sure it was not easy to share, so I value you doing so.”
Accepting Negative Feedback Well from Your Team Members
When you ask for honest feedback from your team, much of it will be negative. The key to maintaining communication is to demonstrate that you can receive negative feedback in a healthy and productive manner. Your team is watching you, and you set an example, especially concerning creating an open, honest environment in your education organization. If you dismiss feedback or get too defensive, you are unlikely to hear critical feedback again from the same employee. Here are tips for accepting negative feedback from your team members:
- Remain empathetic. When you listen to feedback with an understanding ear, it provides you an opportunity to learn about your organization.
- Sit in silence. Avoid making a knee-jerk reaction to negative feedback by sitting in silence for a few seconds before responding.
- Write it down. Take notes when you receive negative feedback to demonstrate to the other person that you are actively listening to their feedback.
- Assume positive intent. It’s natural to feel defensive when receiving negative feedback. You can overcome that reflex by assuming positive intent.
- Talk less. The more you talk, the less you listen. Talking less both allows you to truly hear the feedback you receive and show that you value it.
Action Is the Answer: It’s Not What You Say, But What You Do
Honest feedback from your employees is crucial to the success of your education organization. When you have useful feedback, you can use it to better yourself, better your team, and better serve the students who ultimately benefit from your mission. Whatever you do, don’t let feedback simply be an interesting exercise. Feedback is of no value unless it leads to changed actions.