Figuring out whether you’re a good leader is harder than you think

By Art Markman

December 04, 2020
In 2011, I was asked to serve as director of a new program at the University of Texas called the Human Dimensions of Organizations. We were a startup inside the university that aimed to bring the humanities and the social and behavioral sciences to individuals in organizations who wanted to learn about people.

I always thought of myself as approachable, and I encouraged staff, faculty, and students involved with the program to come to me with their complaints and suggestions. As it turns out, few people took me up on my offer to criticize the program. That doesn’t mean that we were doing well, though. It just means that I wasn’t getting all the feedback I needed.

In particular, no matter how much you encourage people to come talk to you in a leadership role—and no matter how approachable and responsive to feedback you are—you are going to hear fewer criticisms than you need to. When people are having a problem or are dissatisfied with something, they may want to complain, but they want to match their complaints to the scope of the problem.

A student having difficulty registering for a course may not feel that it is worth “escalating” the problem all the way to the director. That is, when you’re talking to someone with a high level of control within the organization, you don’t necessarily want to address particular annoyances, even though those problems may have a significant impact on your overall assessment of that person’s leadership effectiveness.

In addition, research on “construal level theory” suggests that social distance makes you think about things more abstractly. When you talk to the director of an organization, you may feel socially distant from them, which can make you think that they don’t really have a hand in worrying about the specific solutions to problems—even though good leaders have to be skilled at both strategic and operational thinking.

That means that a lot of the daily feedback you get as a leader is biased away from many of the problems that people within your organization are experiencing. So, how can you tell whether you’re actually doing well?

1. Get specific

When you’re having conversations with the people who are working for you, listen to the way they talk about their experience. If the focus is primarily on general statements (“Things are great” or “I love my job”), then you may not be getting the full picture. What is actually happening day-to-day?

To find out, ask specific questions and focus them on situations rather than on your performance. When you ask, “How am I doing?” you create two forces that will make it hard for you to get an honest answer. First, many people don’t want to criticize their supervisor directly. Second, you’re asking for a general assessment.

Instead, ask about particular situations and ask for reactions and suggestions. By focusing on situations, the problems people raise need not be interpreted as criticisms of people in leadership positions. That makes it easier to get honest feedback. Your interest in specific situations can also help the people working for you recognize the level of detail that you focus on with your own work.

2. Seed the conversation

If people working for you are reluctant to give you good feedback, you can try to start a conversation by raising your own concerns about projects you’re involved in. Describe things that you’re hoping to improve or situations that you think you could have handled more effectively.

There are two benefits to this focus. First, it creates a spirit of joint problem-solving. You’re talking about things that could be improved, because you are looking for input on how to make changes. Second, it helps the people you work with see that you are adopting a growth mindset about your leadership. People are more likely to provide constructive criticism when they think it will be taken to heart.

In general, if you want feedback from people, don’t wait for them to provide it. Create opportunities to get information that will help you improve the way you lead.

3. Have a spy

If the group that you supervise is large (or if there are a few layers of management between you and some of your key employees), then you also need to have people who will report back key observations. These are your spies.

You don’t want your spies identifying who is saying things, but rather what is being said and what kinds of people are saying it. For example, the associate director of the Human Dimensions of Organizations program had a great relationship with our students. When problems affecting the students came up, she would bring them to me anonymously. We could then put a group together to generate ideas to address the problem quickly.

4. Set priorities

If you are going to have these conversations with the people who work for you, it’s also important to set expectations about what problems you can and cannot fix. Effective management involves knowing the mission of the organization and working to achieve it. Some of the criticisms that you encounter involve issues that may get in the way of the mission.

There will be times when you become aware of concerns that you cannot address because there are other tasks that take higher priority. Not only do you need to be aware that not every problem that can be solved should be solved; you also need to communicate with people about those priorities. It’s better for the people who work for you to know that you are aware of issues and have chosen to put resources elsewhere than for them to think you are unaware of what is happening.

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