Closing the Feedback Gap: How Leaders Can Get Honest Input

Closing the Feedback Gap: How Leaders Can Get Honest Input

October 23, 2019 by

If you’ve ever had stitches you know that closing a cut is not done by stretching one side of skin to meet the other, but by carefully bringing the two sides together to meet in the middle. The same principle is true when it comes to getting real feedback in an organization.

Observing Existing Feedback

Oaks Church is a large and complex organization with a staff of nearly 200. When I joined the team, I had never worked in a church or in an organization with more than 20 people. Actively observing and asking questions was the most effective way for me to learn the ropes quickly as an outsider. Working as the admin for a creative arts pastor, Kelvin Co, who has been there 12 years, I quickly became aware that Kelvin is one of the most respected leaders in our church.

Something I observed that stood out to me was whenever Kelvin would ask for feedback, the responses he tends to get were “right” or “safe” in contrast to what is discussed about the same topic at the “water cooler.”

How can leaders make the right decisions if the responses they gets don’t fully reflect the reality of the situation, but instead are merely what people think they want to hear?

Being Open to Criticism

A few months into my new role as associate creative arts pastor, during a light-hearted conversation about an upcoming initiative that quickly turned serious, Kelvin (who has 20 years of experience on me) sternly asked me “Are you telling me I’m wrong?”

I fumbled for words. He repeated the question, forcing me to sigh a humble, “Yes.” Kelvin perked up, “All right, I’m wrong!” I was surprised and relieved, especially when I realized his openness to being wrong came from a desire to know and be able to act on truth.

As Kelvin and I continued to work and lead closely together, we discovered that the higher you are in leadership, the gap to getting real feedback gets proportionately wider. It gets harder to bridge the gap between what leaders think is happening to what actually is. With this revelation, Kelvin and I determined to lead better by finding ways to close the feedback gap.

How to Close the Gap

Proverbs 3:5 tell us to “lean not on their own understanding.” In context, this verse is about faith but it is also a key step for leaders to closing the feedback gap. Any seasoned leader will lead from their “understanding” or bias. They should pull from their failures, successes, and lessons learned. Kelvin is a very strong leader with vast experience; he can easily come up with solutions and is quick in making decisions. While this is one of his strengths, it stifles real feedback. He tends to frame questions that will likely steer toward his desired outcome. Because his mind moves quickly to a solution, he will listen for what he needs to support it. The first step we had to take in closing the gap would be for Kelvin to frame unbiased and open questions.

We also learned that feedback is a collaborative effort between leader and follower that requires both parties to submit to the process. Kelvin couldn’t close the gap alone. Our team needed to be comfortable with coming to the table and giving their honest opinions even if they didn’t feel “right” or “safe.” We needed to provide a platform for real feedback between Kelvin and team to be shared and received.

The Solution

We set up a half-day, off-site meeting (now known as “feedback Tuesday”) with the primary goal of listening to what our team thought, felt, and had to say. We asked them questions from easy ones like “How do you feel about Bunco (a game we played in meetings)?” to “What frustrates you about your job?”

It was strategic for Kelvin as the head of the department to be present and posture himself in a non-threatening or dominating way. I facilitated the conversation to help neutralize the intimidation factor of directly speaking to the boss. Kelvin postured himself to only receive feedback without qualifying, explaining, or giving excuses. Kelvin’s non-verbal response was just as important. He did not pout, slouch or show any sign of offense being taken even with the most critical and evoking thoughts shared. The way the team was feeling out his responses was very evident. The more they saw how receptive he was, the more honest they got.

We left “feedback Tuesday” with a robust list of our team’s pain points, frustrations, and ideas. The yielded posture of listening enabled us to gain valuable insight. The list informed us about the wounds’ scope and scale.

The thread needed to stitch the tear was to honor their honesty and deliver substantial change promptly. We went to work on the list and rolled out our plan of action the following week. We proved to our team that if they were vulnerable with feedback we wouldn’t just listen, we would act.

Building a Healthy Feedback Culture

The hardest part about getting stitches is that you want everything to go back to normal right after the procedure. But wounds need time to mend. Neglecting the proper care will force the cut to reopen and get infected. Having a healthy feedback culture takes time and nurturing. By acting on raw conversations (unbiased questions, listening to hear, and postured to receive), we saw our feedback gap begin to close. There has been a notable increase in unity, collaboration and buy-in within the Oaks Creative Arts Team. To stay the course of not just healing the wound but strengthening the body, we intend to be diligent in keeping the feedback gap close.

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Need more help refining your team culture? Our Courageous Storytellers membership site has tackled leadership, self care, and culture. We’ve got a number of resources that can help you build a healthy team culture. Learn more about membership.

Post By:

Jess Fox


Jess Fox is the associate creative arts pastor at the Oaks Church and the founder of Echo Youth Programs. No matter what hat she is wearing, her goal is always to empower teams or individuals to use their creativity as a catalyst to create change.
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