[April 27, 2020] I’ve been around performance reviews long enough to understand they have value. Written by someone who outranks the person rated, the evaluation has both good and bad points. But, some evaluations are truly valuable. Those criticisms from subordinates will frequently contain the starkest surprises and bluntness.
As such, feedback from subordinates can knock a leader off their high perch and drop them into the sea of reality. A few lucky leaders have a subordinate that works closely with them, giving brutal feedback in private. Others, like me, asked for input from anyone willing to provide it. There was only one requirement, and that was the feedback had to be as truthful as possible and should spare no courtesy.
“There is only one way to avoid criticism; do nothing and be nothing.” – Aristotle
As expected, I was often surprised by the input my soldiers would give to me.1,2 A strength that I prided myself on throughout my military career was “education.” I insisted on providing all those working for me with quality education, both formal and informal. It was challenging to have so many people out in schools, but the short-term sacrifice was worth it.
Two years after working in one unit, I was astounded that my latest evaluation by subordinates showed education as a weakness. How could that be with all the emphasis I placed on it? I had made sure schools were always available, the money was there to fund my soldiers to attend, and I rewarded those who went to school. I envisioned myself as the paragon of education in my unit. How could it be a weakness?
After speaking with my junior NCOs, I found that they saw my emphasis on education overall as excellent, but I had failed on another front. I had not given my soldiers specific guidance on what schools were best and the ideal time to attend. They also worried that being away from the unit put them at a disadvantage and that I was not there to protect them from those disadvantages.
Stunned, I changed the way I saw education in the Army and switched to a more decentralized system of encouraging and rewarding the education of subordinates. My NCOs had given me something invaluable. Something I saw as a strength was made more robust and more valuable.3
If it were not for me insisting upon criticism from subordinates, I would have never known about this weakness and would not have taken corrective action. The lesson is that no matter what you believe to be your most important strength, it can be improved as long as the leader is willing to value criticism from subordinates.
- A good habit for leaders is to not just accept feedback but to accept it politely. See an older article I wrote about this: https://www.theleadermaker.com/good-habits-17-politely-accept-feedback/
- There are also other effective ways to encourage feedback. A few are addressed here: https://www.theleadermaker.com/how-to-get-good-feedback/
Here is a good article at Inc. that addresses “How to Criticize Employees: 6 Rules.” While this article focuses on “employees” it is just as relevant to employees criticizing their boss: https://www.inc.com/geoffrey-james/how-to-criticize-employees-6-rules.html