Embracing employee feedback isn't just about collecting feedback.
Employee suggestions are important to a company’s growth. Managers and HR professionals are sure to understand the value of bottom-up feedback and how important it is to make employees feel heard. Gary Vaynerchuk even shared that the biggest mistake an employee can make is not sharing their concerns or challenges with their managers. Being upfront with their feedback can help managers improve employee engagement, retain key talent, and keep teams happy and productive. But there are instances where the altruistic attempt by managers to gather feedback can be undermined by an overlooked part of the feedback process: how the feedback is received.
The struggle with feedback
Let’s be honest: feedback can be hard to swallow. Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, authors of the book “Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well” writes:
“Learning about ourselves can be painful—sometimes brutally so—and the feedback is often delivered with a forehead-slapping lack of awareness for what makes people tick. It can feel less like a “gift of learning” and more like a colonoscopy.”
Stone and Heen also write that there are three main triggers that we experience in accepting feedback:
- Truth Triggers: When the feedback is untrue, unhelpful, or off base. (Eg: “That’s not right, I don’t do what she says I do.”)
- Relationship Triggers: When the person giving the feedback colours the feedback itself. (Eg: “After all I’ve done for him?”)
- Identity Triggers: When the feedback affects your relationship with yourself. (Eg: “If what she says is true, does that mean I’m a bad manager?”)
When people experience any of these three triggers, they are likely to retaliate negatively, either being defensive or even aggressive towards the person giving the feedback, or avoiding the topic altogether. This could potentially hurt the organisation by creating a culture that dissuades feedback instead of encouraging it.
These triggers are natural. Being upfront with yourself about what your triggers are will help you anticipate your natural emotional reaction to criticism, and better manage your reaction to employees’ words.
What if I choose to reject the employee’s feedback?
Rejecting suggestions is every manager’s prerogative. But it is important to note that there is a difference between choosing not to put the feedback into practice and rejecting the feedback in a negative manner.
- Was the feedback acknowledged gracefully and respectfully?
- Was the feedback considered for all its merits and in an impartial manner?
- Was there an attempt to have a discussion to understand the employees’ point of view?
If your answer to any of the above “No”, then consider reworking your approach to reacting to feedback.
Reworking your approach
Approach 1: Acting like the victim
Instead of: “I don’t understand where this is coming from.”
Try: “To be honest, I wasn't expecting this feedback. I’d like to find out more.”
Approach 2: Shoot it down
Instead of: “You’re wrong.”
Try: “Thanks for sharing your perspective. If it's alright, I'd like to share my perspective as well. Maybe we can come to an understanding.”
Approach 3: Lashing out defensively
Instead of: “My job must seem so easy to you. Why don't you try doing this job?”
Try: “I’d admit that this job isn’t the easiest and there’s definitely room for improvement on my end. I will do my best to keep your feedback in mind, but I’d like to ask for some patience in return.”
Of course, you can expect backlash if feedback if routinely ignored. Studies have shown that advisors often found people more incompetent if their advice was ignored. So if you’re opening the floor to feedback, be ready to spend some resources (time, money, or manpower) to at least explore the feasibility of these suggestions.
Tips to moving towards a healthy relationship with employee feedback
After considering your own relationship to feedback, try these five tips to actively react to feedback in a more positive way.
1. Take a moment before you react to the feedback
Feedback can be hard to swallow, so give yourself time to process the feedback. If you’re tempted to react negatively, try saying this:“Thanks for the feedback. I’m going to need some time to process this. When I am done, I might have some follow-up questions to better understand your suggestion.” Of course, it is important to always follow up, or you will risk losing credibility in your employee’s eyes.
2. Have a user manual for feedback
If you have figured out how you prefer your feedback, write it down in a few points. Then, share this with your team and encourage them to do the same. This not only lays the foundation for a team culture that encourages an open exchange of feedback, but also tailors the feedback that comes your way to something more palatable.
There is no guarantee that all your team members will follow this to the tee, but it will help introduce the concept of phrasing feedback well without offending anyone. For example:
Sample User Manual for Feedback
- If you want to provide feedback to me, book a Manager Review session with me. I like to come to feedback sessions mentally prepared.
- I appreciate feedback with concrete examples.
- I prefer suggestions to be sent via email.
3. Communicate what you want feedback on
Being a manager is a full time job, yet it is common for managers to be doing dual roles. To help tailor the feedback that comes in, be clear about what you want feedback on. You can do this by being explicit in your request for suggestions. For example: “As a manager, my goal is to make sure everyone in this team is learning. If you have suggestions on how I can better do that, please let me know.”
4. Check in with your team regularly with a manager review
As you would hold an employee review, try turning the tables and ask for a manager review. Making time for feedback will help keep it predictable. That way, you can mentally prepare for the discussion before having to face the music. To help with this, provide some questions that your employees can plan and answer beforehand.
Examples of questions to ask
- What 3 things have I done well as your manager?
- What 3 things can I improve on as your manager?
- How can I better help you reach your goals as an employee of company X?
5. Record the conversation
This may seem radical, but if you and your employee have that trust and they have given explicit permission, an audio recording of a feedback session could provide great self-awareness on the words you use in response to criticism. Taking yourself out of a potentially emotionally-charged situation and picking out bad habits can be scary and jarring, but can also paint an accurate picture of where your areas of improvement are in the tedious task of accepting feedback.
Remember that you have no control over how people give feedback, only how you receive it. Learning to receive feedback not only opens you up for personal growth, but also fosters a more open and communicative culture within your organisation.