November 12, 2013

We customarily think of managers as the men and women who pass judgment on the performance of others.

But managers are evaluated, too. It may come in the form of annual reviews, employee surveys or union grievances. They may get feedback from conversations with colleagues and staff. 

And from those interactions, even good managers learn that they have performance gaps. That’s a nice way of saying the boss has some flaws.

Because the managers in our Poynter programs get 360-degree feedback from colleagues, I get to see a lot of compliments, along with solid, constructive critiques of bosses. Among the more common concerns:

  • Delegate more, micromanage less
  • Listen more, interrupt less
  • Keep people better informed
  • Cool that temper
  • Disconnect from digital devices during conversations and meetings
  • Distribute work equitably
  • Set clear priorities
  • Follow up on conversations and emails
  • Provide better feedback
  • Post work schedules on time
  • Don’t let underperformers cause extra work for others

The real test of a manager’s character is how he or she responds to such feedback.

There’s often an immediate sense of defensiveness, the feeling that others don’t know how hard you work or how hard you try or how the complaints fail to take into account all the other good things you do.

That’s human.

But what really matters is your next step: how you move forward in the face of well-founded criticism.

The good news: you can make things right. I know this from the countless coaching sessions I’ve done with aspiring great bosses. Here’s my advice:

1. Take the critique to heart. It may sting. It may stink. But if people are asking you to change a behavior, do your best to see the world through their eyes, not yours. You may think that when you shout, you’re just letting off steam and mean no harm. To others, it’s a morale and confidence killer. You may think a delayed work schedule or email reply is merely a misdemeanor offense. To those who can’t plan their personal lives or get their work done because of your missing info, it may feel like a felony. You may think you’re being efficient by eyeballing your computer while talking with staffers. To them, it’s a signal of their unimportance. Give credence to their concerns.

2. Apologize to those affected by your bad habits. I’ve known managers who think apologies undermine their authority. Not so. When bosses express sincere regret for wrongs they’ve done, they can gain credibility. No need to grovel or blubber. Just take responsibility. If you say: “I’ve given a lot of thought to your feedback. I didn’t realize how often I shoot down your suggestions — with sarcasm. I thought it was just debate, just give-and-take. I was wrong. I apologize for humiliating you – and for stifling some creativity, too,” you are demonstrating strength.

 3. Chart your course of change. Start by informing people of your intentions. Go on the record. “I heard the concerns about the late posting of work schedules. That’s my fault and I apologize. Effective immediately, I’ll make sure they’re posted two weeks in advance. I’m arranging to have a backup scheduler as well, so there are two of us on the case.” Look for quick wins – things you can do immediately to demonstrate good faith, while you work on long-term, lasting improvements. Determine how you’ll measure your success, so you have a plan, not a wish.

4. Invite observation and feedback. Let’s say you’re going to do a better job of responding to emails. Seek out not only those who’ve complained, but also other respected colleagues. Tell them about your plan to improve your response time. Be specific. Then ask them if they’ll keep an eye on your progress and let you know how you’re doing. Not only will they keep you honest, they’re likely to spread the word about your improvement. That’s a win all around.

5. Be authentic in the process. You may be an introvert who’s asked to spend more face time with people or an extrovert who’s asked to be less dominant in meetings. When you respond, don’t overreact. Step up or pipe down a bit more, not radically. If you’ve committed to being less of a micromanager, don’t simply withdraw. Define what it means to be less involved in the work of others, make sure others share that definition, then use it as your guide.

Remember, when you choose to change, you are modifying your behavior. You’re not becoming a different person, just a better version of you. 

And much better boss, too.

* * *

Whenever you’re working on improvement, it’s important to have allies in the organization. I’ll list the most important ones in this column’s podcast:


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Jill helps news managers learn how to lead her favorite people in the world - journalists. Good journalists, she points out, question authority and resist…
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