You’re a manager. You’re not one to pat yourself on the back, but you’ve got to admit: your team is doing pretty darn well. 

At least, that’s how it seems to you. 

Big projects are being checked off the list, deadlines are being met. You haven’t had to referee any heated conflicts, your inbox has no complaints. You’re good! 

But is that the whole story? Our research suggests your direct reports might describe the situation a wee bit differently.

How does the team really feel?

“As human beings, we see what we look for. That’s true for leaders as well,” explains Kimberly Davis, author of Brave Leadership. “Leaders are really busy people, so they want to see that things are working well, because that saves them time.” 

As human beings, we see what we look for. That’s true for leaders as well.

Some might call this blind optimism. But others would call it something more like selective ignorance, and borderline lazy. However you characterize it, it keeps managers from the reality of what’s really happening on the team. And our research backs this up. When we asked managers to rate their agreement with statements about their team’s health, they consistently agreed at a higher rate than their individual contributors. For instance:

  • 37 percent of managers said their team had quick and easy access to information, but only 20 percent of their individual contributors agreed.
  • 45 percent of managers said they receive honest feedback, but just 26 percent of individual contributors felt they like could give that honest feedback.

This inflated view is even worse in the C-suite. C-level executives are two times as likely to say that their team is high performing or has high well-being, while their individual contributors view those aspects as well below average.

That ain’t good. And if that data isn’t alarming enough, things get worse when you consider the inevitable fallout of ignoring this perception gap. 

“You’ll make decisions that are based on a fantasy view of what you believe is happening, rather than what is really happening,” says Kevin Monroe, a consultant and trusted advisor for leaders. “This leads to disillusionment and disengagement of employees, and ultimately causes people to check out and leave.” 

6 tips to address this perception gap (and improve your team)

The good news is that you don’t have to be a victim of your circumstances. If you’re a manager, use these steps to get a better grasp on how your team is actually feeling and performing. The information you gather will help you make positive changes. And if you’re an individual contributor, consider taking a bold step and suggest your team experiment with these tips.

1. Run a health monitor with your team

Everyone has valuable insight into where they feel the team is succeeding or falling behind, so why not ask them?

Try running a health monitor play from the Atlassian Playbook. This play provides an effective and collaborative way to identify improvement areas. The team gathers to rate how they think the team stacks up against eight attributes of healthy teams, using a simple voting system. (Thumbs up, thumbs sideways, or thumbs down.) This is done in the spirit of open communication. To encourage complete candor, participants must feel a sense of psychological safety. So remember: it’s a safe space with no quick judgments.

Once that’s complete, the group chooses two or three of the red and yellow areas to focus on improving. Make these your priority items. As a manager, stay open to receiving all input and suggest action steps.

Important: Make sure to get your next health monitor on the schedule. They’re most effective when run frequently (try monthly) to monitor progress, see immediate improvement, and help the team continually evolve. 

2. Don’t be shy about asking for feedback

“In order to truly know what your team members are thinking and feeling, you have to ask them,” says Kim Scott, co-founder of Radical Candor and author of Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing your Humanity.

In our research, of the individual contributors who said they can’t share feedback with their managers, 54 percent said it’s because managers just don’t ask for it. 

Requesting this critical input can be nerve-racking for both you and your direct reports, so Scott says it can be helpful to have a go-to question in your back pocket to get the discussion started. Questions like:

  • What can I do or stop doing to make it easier to work with me?
  • How can I support you on this project?
  • What’s one thing I can do today to make your job easier?

Leadership teams should also consider instituting regular, company-wide surveys to solicit feedback. Culture Amp is just one example of a platform that makes it easy to engage your team and collect helpful insights from your employees at the same time. These can also be anonymous.

3. Promote psychological safety 

Even with promised anonymity or some clever starter questions at the ready, team members won’t be comfortable offering critical feedback if they’re worried about repercussions or retaliation. This is where psychological safety comes in.

“You need to make it safe for them to say what’s real, because if they can’t say what’s real, you won’t know what the problem is,” says Davis.

But, how do you do that? “Start by asking your team to give you feedback, then reward their efforts no matter how insignificant the feedback is,” Scott says. She cites an example of a time she asked her team for input and someone responded by complaining about the tea available in the office. “I rewarded the candor by thanking the person publicly, sending a handwritten note, approving funds to make sure there was better tea, and making sure everyone knew that there was better tea now because somebody had complained about it in the meeting. Later, more substantive issues got raised,” she adds. 

It’s a minor example that proves a significant point: if you want your team to speak their minds, you need to resist the urge to get defensive or make excuses and applaud and reward them for bringing their concerns to the table. That’s bound to start the snowball rolling. And when more serious stuff is brought up it needs to be rewarded, too. After all, that’s the toughest feedback to offer.

4. Get out of your office

It’s common for managers to brag about their “open door policy.” But think about it. That places the burden on the employee. Rather than paying attention to what’s happening within your team, direct reports must bring things to you.

For managers, Monroe said a better strategy is to get out of the office (if you have one) and circulate among the team at least once daily. This provides an opportunity to observe and hear what’s going on. It’s not about spying, it’s about being engaged and accessible. 

Monroe provides an example from a call center environment when leaders tried this technique and discovered one of the biggest frustrations was the chairs. They were miserably uncomfortable.  

“They upgraded the chairs, and employee satisfaction, engagement, and productivity soared,” he says. “You don’t hear that if you’re always sitting in the executive suite or in your leadership team meeting. Where do you hear that? When you’re on the floor, talking to people.”

Note: even if you’re on or oversee a remote team and don’t have an office floor to walk, just taking time to engage in your team’s shared chat channels goes a long way. In short, be available to your team. 

5. Make decisions with your team (rather than for them)

As the manager, you’re the ultimate decision-maker. However, it’s important to realize that your team members might be frustrated with the way you’re always dishing out choices and instructions, without involving them in the process.

In our research, 51 percent of managers said the decision-making process was not political, while only 36 percent of individual contributors agreed with that statement. And of those ICs who reported a political atmosphere of decision-making, almost 30 percent said that it was because they weren’t included in the decision-making process.

Choices that directly impact the team shouldn’t be made in isolation. Gather the team, present the options, discuss pros and cons, and allow everyone to weigh in with their opinions. 

6. Use the insights you gather

Most of these tips deal with gathering feedback. But too many leaders stop there. That is, they collect input from their teams and don’t follow through on it.

“Surveying is only good to the degree that you do something with that information,” says Monroe. “If you’re not planning to take action on what you learn, it’s better not to ask at all.” 

Surveying is only good to the degree that you do something with that information.

So, if you hear that the tea in the break room is bad, swap it out. If you’re told the desk chairs are miserable, replace them. If your team hits the same roadblocks time and time again, reevaluate your workflow. 

“I’ve heard of scenarios of businesses investing in [feedback] tools and shutting them down, as they didn’t want to hear about certain things that were happening,” says Trent Innes, Managing Director of Xero Australia and Asia. “You have to be willing to engage and respond directly to the feedback provided.” 

Consider this your reality check

Truth is, it’s easier to move forward with the assumption that everything on the team is great. Ignorance is bliss, right? 

But continuing to look at things through rose-colored glasses will only hinder your team. This includes tanking employee engagement, distrust, losing top talent, and watching performance suffer. It may seem tricky or daunting, especially at first, but you’ll be far better off getting a real sense for how your team is doing. And you’ll only get that sense by asking, by being courageous and vulnerable.

“All great teams are built on a foundation of trust,” says Innes. “If you don’t have trust, or if you don’t have clarity within the team, then you risk becoming underperforming.”

Attention leaders: there’s something your team isn’t telling you