Getting Honest Feedback

By Rose O. Sherman, EdD, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN


The late Norman Vincent Peale once made the critical observation that “the trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.”  This can easily happen in leadership because the higher you go, the less likely you are to get honest feedback.  We can sometimes be blindsided by information that our staff may share with one another about a failed initiative but not talk with us.  Staff can be fearful if they feel the feedback won’t be accepted and they might jeopardize their careers.  Leadership expert Ken Blanchard has described feedback as the breakfast of champions but many nurse leaders will tell you that it can be difficult to swallow.  Getting honest feedback can be challenging but it is possible if we open ourselves to it.  Here are some suggestions from experts in the leadership field:

  1. Get out of your office and ask questions – staff are more likely to give honest feedback if you are in their territory versus being in your own office.  The late mayor Ed Koch in New York city used to walk the streets and ask “how am I doing?’  That question might not be a comfortable one for you but what if you asked “what is going well and what could be improved?”  You can observe body language and if it appears that someone is holding back – ask them about it.
  2. Openly acknowledge mistakes you may have made or contributed to – when you have a track record of accepting personal accountability using the “I” word, staff will feel more comfortable giving you feedback.  If you have a reputation of defensiveness or blaming others,  you will be much less like to get honest feedback.
  3. Corroborate information with multiple sources – leader guru Michael Hyatt has observed that leaders have to be alert to hearing things from multiple sources.  Some staff will look to feed your  ego with positivity while others may use their relationship with you to make destructive comments about other team members.  Engaging in conversations with those who may not agree with your viewpoints is especially important.
  4. Develop a plan to improve – When you have been given feedback such as your lack of visibility on your unit, the first step would be to assess what behaviors or actions would lead to improvement.  This is where getting specifics when you are receiving feedback becomes important.  If you ask for honest feedback and then don’t use it, people will be less likely to give you feedback in the future.
  5. View feedback as a gift –  Stanford faculty member Carole Robin contends that we need to think about feedback differently.   What if we changed our mental model from viewing it as criticism to “it is a gift, it is data that I didn’t have before and will help me to make more informed choices in the future.”

The most highly effective leaders are coach-able.  While positive feedback is wonderful, much of our greatest growth will come when suggestions are made to improve our performance.

Dr. Rose O. Sherman, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN is a Professor of Nursing and Director of the Nursing Leadership Institute in the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing at Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Florida. To read more of her articles, visit her blog, Emerging RN Leader.