Honest Feedback

If you are in a leadership position of any kind this post is for you.  It is especially relevant for school administrators.  Leadership is not an individual sport.  Successful leaders do not operate in isolation; they work to create cohesive teams that work towards clearly defined goals.  The necessity of team building is a point not often missed; unfortunately, the approaches to doing so are counter-productive far too often.  Many leaders never consider questioning the ubiquitous assumption that it is their responsibility to “hold folks accountable” for doing what they are supposed to do – read apply the pressure necessary to ensure compliance.  I submit that meaningful and self-sustaining commitment to any shared goal is possible only by building a culture of trust.  That objective is possible only when you have a team that provides honest feedback.

It is my experience that most working professionals have been thoroughly and systematically conditioned to avoid giving honest feedback.  The role of a team member is to be a “team player” – one who does as he/she is told without asking questions.  Public school teachers have been trained to play this role well – give “input” when asked by listening carefully to what the boss is saying and then filling in the little “dialogue” boxes with answers that fit the formula provided by the expert or the “specialist” at the time.  In other words, teachers are afraid.  Listen to our buzzwords – “accountability”, “adequate yearly progress”, “standardization”, etc, etc.  The underlying premise of No Child Left Behind is that if we apply enough pressure (and/or offer enough incentives) our problems will get solved and stay solved.  From my perspective, this observation applies to other professions as well.  The terminology may be different, but the trend is the same: we can be great (or at least a lot better) if we could just get everyone to comply.

I began my career as a school administrator convinced that this thinking is wrong.  I believe that while this approach can yield to a change in the “data”, it will rarely lead to more learning and can never result in lasting change.  From the first day I was hired as a school principal, I set out to create a culture where the voice of each team member was valued; where each individual’s honest assessment of the decision we were considering was sought.  For more than half of my first year, the attitude of the faculty was polite skepticism.  It was as if everyone was waiting for the other other shoe to drop.  Till this day, some members of the faculty are apologetic when they offer a dissenting opinion – even when I ask for it.  In this my third year, there are levels of departmental, cross-curricular, and grade level collaboration unlike anything I have seen or been part of before in my career.  It is my opinion that the freedom to object – and think, and plan and innovate – has been a major part of bringing us to this place as a school.

I do not think there can be a formula for creating a team that provides honest feedback, but here are three specific examples of the strategies I have used.

Be vulnerable
Nothing demonstrates a desire for feedback like asking for it.  A practice I have engaged in both as an assistant principal and as a principal is to invite small groups of the faculty and staff to meet with me on neutral ground (usually the library) for the express purpose of providing feedback about me specifically.  In my invitation, I send five questions I will be asking:
– “What are my blind spots?”
-“What do I think I do well that I don’t?”
– “What do I need to do better?”
– “What do I need to stop doing or do much differently?”
– “In what area am I most in need of growth?”
These groups are always small; they always include both teachers and staff; everyone gets invited (by the end of the year).  In my invitation and at the start of the meeting, I ask for honest feedback.  I share my conviction that I can not possibly be fully effective as a leader if I am not aware of the perspective of the people on my team.  A point of particular emphasis is my request that participants save their words of encouragement for later.  This is not an attempt to fish for complements.  Almost invariable, I come away from these sessions with insight that I almost certainly would never have gained if I had not asked for the feedback.  Sometimes, I make major changes to my perspective or approach based on what is shared.  In addition to giving me the opportunity to learn, these meetings build trust.  On more occasions than I can remember, staff members have been very appreciative of the fact that they were invited to participate and that their feedback was invited at all.  Even participants who chose not to provide feedback frequently say that the gesture of asking was deeply meaningful to them.

Ask for feedback … and use it
If a principal’s roast is not quite your feed, you can still ask for feedback.  Seize opportunities to ask people for their opinions and then use their input as often as you can.  Ask the custodian how he would approach a task you are discussing instead of informing him of how you want the job done.  Use the secretary’s suggestion for how to get seven sheets of student-specific paper and report cards sorted and into the hands of teachers in time to distribute.  Give a draft of the parent letter you just wrote to a teacher (not just the Language Arts teachers) and ask her to mark it up for you.  The more you ask for feedback in the little things, the more willing your team will be to give their honest opinions about the big things.  In the past couple of weeks, we have started our school-wide professional learning group (details and an update in a later post).  Three of our departments (so far) have taken a day out of the classroom to engage in shared professional learning.  Science went first and planned a great activity.  They each wrote everything they do as part of their job as a teacher on a paper plate.  They then rewrote their plate to be organized the way they would like it to be.  Part of that process was “fixing a plate for Mr. Maxey”.  They wrote the things they would like me to take off their plates.  I visited their meeting that day (and the others on their days) so that they could share their specific ideas about how I can lighten their loads as classroom teachers.  I walked out of that meeting and took immediate action.  Our faculty meeting this month was planned around that feedback.  If you really listen to your team, they will be willing to be honest with you.

Admit your mistakes publicly
It takes a big man (or woman) to admit his mistakes.  But there are plenty of small-minded fools propping up the charade of their own greatness.  Here’s the thing: if you are a human being, you are going to make mistakes.  The only question is whether you are going to pretend that you are infallible or gain the trust of your team by admitting your mistakes.  By the way, for many leaders this is very difficult.  Too often our own pride convinces us to move on as quickly as possible.  In my opinion it is possible to say you made a mistake while communicating that it wasn’t your fault or not that big a deal or in some other way down-playing the issue.  It seems to me that leaders should bravely but humbly say “I made a mistake.  I am sorry.  I am going to fix it and make plans to keep myself from making this mistake again”.  When they do, their team and community gain respect for them.

As the cliche goes, there is no “I” in team.  There are plenty of eyes on your team, though.  It would be foolhardy to ignore the perspective of the entire team.  Good leaders listen when the members of their team offer feedback.  Great leaders ask for it.

1 Comment

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One response to “Honest Feedback

  1. I love “There are plenty of eyes on your team, though. It would be foolhardy to ignore the perspective of the entire team. ” It is so true and even when we haven’t actually made a poor call, if it is perceived that way, it can be detrimental to the culture of the team. Honest feedback can avoid perception taking over. Greatly appreciate your thoughts.

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