Receiving Feedback, Sopranos Style

By Lain Ehmann

A Mafia boss like Tony Soprano might be the last person you’d think would be an effective role model for you as a manager. But when Deborrah Himsel implemented some of Tony’s principles in her role as vice president for organizational effectiveness at Avon, she found the fictional mobster’s leadership techniques to be so successful, she wrote a book on the topic: Leadership Sopranos Style: How to Become a More Effective Boss (Dearborn Trade Publishing, 2004).

Himsel got the idea when she saw an episode in which Tony solicits feedback from his crew. “Give it to my face,” Himsel says Tony told his team. “I thought: I wish I had the guts to do that,” she recalls. She garnered her courage and encouraged her own team to share how they felt about her performance to her face. The results were outstanding, and the book was born. Leadership Sopranos Style contains many managerial tips, but one of the most effective for Himsel is that original lesson on receiving feedback. “I’ve seen few leaders willing to open themselves up to feedback,” she explains. Here are Himsel’s – and Tony’s – suggestions on how to ask your team to give it to your face.

Create an atmosphere of trust. No one’s going to tell you the truth if they fear their job – or their head – is going to be at risk. Engender an environment of trust by laying ground rules and assuring your team that you won’t shoot the messenger.

Expand your circle. While you want to ask for feedback from people you trust, also include some folks who don’t always see things your way, says Himsel. Sometimes you can learn the most from people who have different perspectives.

Let people speak freely. Most people are hesitant to tell you straight up that your communication skills stink. Create a method by which your team can share opinions and suggestions without staring you in the eye. Anonymous written surveys are good, as are team brainstorming meetings where you’re invited in after the discussion. “It doesn’t put anybody on the spot,” says Himsel.

Don’t get defensive. The surest way to shut down an open line of communication is to argue when someone points out your shortcomings or disagrees with one of your decisions. When your team offers feedback – to your face or anonymously – simply thank them. You can mull over the criticism at your leisure and choose what to accept and what to discard.

Choose something to change. While you might disagree with some comments and be unable to act on others because of organizational limitations, find something that you can change and then share your plans with your team. “Research shows that even if you do just that people will perceive you as a better leader because you’re trying,” says Himsel.

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