Dilemma of the Month: Negative Feedback From Direct Reports

Back Q&A Oct 4, 2018 By Suzanne Lucas
I am a new manager with four direct reports. I have always had great performance reviews and am in good standing at my company. Recently, my boss held a meeting with my direct reports where they filled out a survey about my performance as their manager. The results were not anonymous, and when my boss shared them with me, he disclosed that “someone” mentioned I wasn’t allowing my team to learn, but rather I was micromanaging them. In discussing my frustration with a peer, she expressed that he is not allowed to do this; it’s an engagement survey and he does not operate in an HR role. Can you shed some light?

Let’s deal with the “allow” part first. There’s no law prohibiting your manager from soliciting and then giving you this feedback. Maybe there’s a company policy, but I doubt it. You say it was an “engagement” survey and not an HR one, so you shouldn’t have received this information.

But what good is asking employees questions about their engagement if this information isn’t acted upon?

So, the company asked your team members what kept them from being engaged. One of them responded: “My boss doesn’t let me learn, and instead micromanages me.” If no one ever shared this feedback with you, the employee would never get their problem solved. You’d never know your employee felt micromanaged. The whole survey would have been a waste of time.

What to do? Take a deep breath, swallow your pride and accept this as an essential piece of feedback: At least one of your employees feels micromanaged.

Let’s be clear — this doesn’t mean you are micromanaging or that your employee doesn’t need frequent and clear oversight from you. Your employee may well need an active manager. I’ve had employees complain to me that their bosses micromanage or are mean, and when I probe a bit further, I learn that the micromanaging is demanding they meet reasonable deadlines and show up on time. Perception isn’t always reality.

But it might be. And you would be a fool to ignore this precious piece of feedback. No one is a perfect manager, and very few people receive proper training to become a great manager, so we all learn as we go. Take this as a blessing. Here’s what you do next.

Talk to your manager

Ask your manager specifically if he’s noticed you micromanaging. If he says yes, ask for examples. Ask if he can share anything else from the survey. Make it clear that your goal is to be a better manager and request his feedback.

If he’s a good manager, he’ll be able to do this. If, on the other hand, he’s not good at providing constructive feedback, you may have to turn elsewhere for coaching. If you have a good HR person, they can be a useful resource. If not, it’s appropriate to ask for a training class.

Talk with your direct reports

This one is a little bit harder because you may feel hurt that at least one of your direct reports criticized you. If you worry you’re going to act defensive, you should wait until you feel calm and ready to have an honest conversation with them. Then sit your team members down (I prefer together, but you can do one on one) and make the following statement: My boss gave me some feedback. He said that I micromanage you guys from time to time. I’d like to fix that.

Related: Dilemma of the Month - Abruptly Made a Manager

Then ask for feedback on areas where they would like you to step back and let them do their work. You, as the manager, will decide whether their requests are reasonable. If you’re unsure, a good response is: Let’s try it your way for two weeks and then re-evaluate. This approach makes them feel heard, and you’re only risking two weeks. It’s entirely possible they will shine when given a chance.

We can’t always see our own mistakes, which means sometimes we need outside perspectives to avoid making the same ones over and over. Even though negative feedback can be painful, it’s wise to welcome it.

Your employees took a risk in being honest with you. (They knew, or at least hoped, it would get back to you.) It’s time for you to take a risk in listening to them.

What’s the best way to get honest feedback from your staff? Tweet us @COMSTOCKSMAG

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