#43 Power Down: Share Power To Level The Playing Field With Subordinates

In the previous blog I wrote about how to advance your interests when dealing with someone who has authority over you. In this blog, I will present some perspectives on how to encourage your subordinates to open up with you and provide you with valuable feedback.

Most of us have heard subordinates talking privately about ineffective policy, poor practices, and counterproductive management styles. Frequently these conversations contain information that would be helpful to their manager. And, all too frequently, the manager never hears them.


Image of condocutor and orchestra - the power over subordinates


If you have people who report to you, my suggestion is not to wonder if these conversations are occurring when you are not around. Rather, assume that they are happening, and seek to become part of them.

Managers usually say that they are open to feedback and frequently they ask for it as well. But, being open to it and asking for feedback are not enough since:

– Subordinates may believe that there will be subtle (or not so subtle) negative consequences to saying something critical of their boss

– Life experience has taught many of us that it is not appropriate to be critical of someone (such as a parent) with greater authority

– Subordinates may think their superiors are not interested in their perceptions

Attitudes such as these are persistent. Whether they are based on genuine experience or cultural mythology, one has to work to overcome them. You must show your subordinates in a sincere manner that you appreciate their views. Provide examples in meetings of how negative feedback has enabled you to make a change that improved the performance of your unit or has benefited the team.

One way that you may be able to begin a more frank conversation with a subordinate is to explicitly speak about your authority and the problem that it creates. As in the previous blog, I believe this practice involves using your personal power to ‘level the playing field’.

This is a simple formula illustrated with an example: “We both know that I have responsibility for the unit and can direct your activity. On the other hand I don’t know the details of everyone’s work. You know your job better than I do. I would like to hear from you what you find challenging in general and how I could be more helpful.”

You may also wish to add, “Many people are not open with their managers about what they think about their manager’s style or directives. I know it will take time but I would like us to communicate with each other in a way that you feel able to tell me things you think I won’t want to hear. Only by learning about my blind spots can I really improve my plans for the unit. For maximum productivity and for the most positive working relationships, we need to collaborate with each other.”

In this manner, you remove or reduce the threats posed by your authority. Then of course you must demonstrate that you mean what you say and remain respectful and supportive when you receive critical feedback. It also helps to report back to someone who has provided feedback and tell him or her specifically what actions you have taken or not taken as a result of receiving the feedback.

If you don’t open feedback channels with your subordinates, you will not have full access to their creativity and potential. In effect, you limit the productivity of your unit.


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