Imagine this scenario: One of the managers at your company steamrolls everyone else in meetings. No one wants to confront him, so they stew during the meeting and complain at the water coolers afterward. For your business, that’s wasted time and toxic negativity. Instead, encourage honest feedback and you’ll have a happier, more productive workplace.
"We waste a huge amount of time and energy tiptoeing around difficult situations," says Katherine Klein, a professor of management at Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania. That silence breeds gossip, obsessive thoughts, and generally disgruntled workers.
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Creating an effective feedback loop is a challenge for any leader. "Feedback often doesn’t work," Klein says, citing main two reasons. "First, it makes us defensive, and second, a lot of feedback lacks specificity, so we don’t know how to improve things."
To create an open culture, you want to make feedback both constructive and commonplace. Here’s how:
1. Model good feedback for employees. If you want your employees to give feedback, you need to show them it’s a safe environment by modeling the behavior you expect. "Giving good feedback takes thought and preparation," Klein says. "For most of us, it’s not natural."
Good feedback emphasizes specific behaviors and outcomes, with constructive suggestions about other choices that might be more effective. You want to make people feel like they’re experimenting with new behaviors, not changing their personalities.
2. Hold regular action reviews or postmortems. To show that feedback is welcome, make a practice of debriefing problems after they happen. "You want to create a culture where giving feedback is normal," Klein says. "(Where the attitude is that) this is just something we do."
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Postmortems are typically open to anyone and reconstruct the steps that led to the problem. Ideally, they’re collaborative and constructive. You are not laying blame -- you are coming up with a way to prevent that problem in the future. (See Etsy’s blog, Code as Craft, for a great summary of how and why they host postmortems.)
3. Ask for guidance before the fact. If you ask for advice in advance, you will often get more actionable feedback. "It’s much easier to give the boss feedback on how to handle a speech or meeting if you’re giving the guidance beforehand," Klein says. Rather than correcting your behavior, they’re setting you up to succeed. "It’s much more constructive," she adds.
Before a tough situation, ask a trusted employee to point out which of your behaviors are most effective and which you might want to avoid. That way, the feedback is naturally impersonal and you’ll be able to apply it immediately.
4. Solicit anonymous feedback. For especially tough issues, or in companies where people are used to keeping quiet, offer a way to give feedback anonymously. "Particularly if one has to break the cycle where people are afraid to speak, anonymity creates a lot of safety," Klein says.
You might set up a suggestion box or give a detailed survey -- any system that allows the person to remain nameless. To ensure that each person feels heard, routinely gather that feedback and comment on how you plan to address the issues.
Nadia Goodman is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY. She is a former editor at YouBeauty.com, where she wrote about the psychology of health and beauty. She earned a B.A. in English from Northwestern University and an M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University. Visit her website, nadiagoodman.com.