Do Your Employees Feel Empowered to Share Honest Feedback?

Employers can help empower their employees to share feedback by openly discussing their strengths, and brainstorming solutions for the future.
March 22, 2017

Is your company or department one where no one openly shares feedback? Chances are, employees may be kvetching in private while remaining silent in public. In other words, the assessments are there—you're just not hearing them.

In environments with effective feedback processes, the employees, departments and companies may perform better.

But how do you create an environment where employees feel empowered to share their thoughts, openly and honestly? It may require a bit of time, but you can create a culture where employees are comfortable giving feedback. And surprisingly, the techniques aren't that hard—they just require you to recognize what to do and keep doing it.

1. Focus on your employee's strengths when giving feedback.

To encourage people to share their thoughts, you can start by making people feel good about receiving feedback. It should feel pleasant and not painful.

In the beginning, focus your assessments on the positive—your employee's strengths, not weaknesses. People get a warm feeling when someone else points out what they're good at—unlike with criticism.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs tells us that humans have a need for self-esteem. When you point out something positive, it can build up confidence and raise self-esteem. You can show leadership by example, and deliver feedback on team members' strengths. As you do more of that, others in your department or company may gradually follow your lead.

2. Make negative feedback about the what, not the who.

Assessments that are only positive and never address anything negative are usually of limited value. You also want people openly discussing things that aren't going well. When negative issues are raised, you can keep the discussion focused on something like a process or a situation—anything other than focusing on an individual employee.

As a manager or owner of your company, you can admit a mistake once in awhile. The boss admitting to a wrong decision can encourage the free flow of feedback.

Criticism that singles out a person can naturally put people on the defensive. And it's not only the person being discussed who may be on the defensive; other employees may be thinking, “Am I next?" At that point, you've lost them all to anxiety.

3. Find solutions for the future.

Focus feedback discussions on how to change something moving forward versus fixating on what went wrong in the past. As soon as a discussion seems like it's going in the direction of laying blame for past activities, the discomfort level can go through the roof.

But if you ask “Does anyone have ideas for how to change things up?" you're initiating an innovation discussion.

Consider getting people engaged in talking about proactive solutions, instead of lapsing into defensive silence. It can change the team dynamic from protecting one's flanks to problem solving and ideating.

4. Request feedback from your employees regularly.

Few things can cause employees to clam up faster than being asked once a year in a large company-wide meeting, “Anyone have a problem to discuss?" You're likely to be met with pin-drop silence. Who wants to speak up when put on the spot?

But what if at the end of every department meeting you share a piece of positive feedback? And then occasionally mention a challenge that needs solving? And then you ask, “Does anyone else have any feedback or any ideas to suggest?" Initiate such discussions so frequently that it becomes standard operating procedure, not an unusual event.

5. Admit to your team that you also make mistakes.

As a manager or owner of your company, you can admit a mistake once in awhile. The boss admitting to a wrong decision can encourage the free flow of feedback. Employees may view something as a sacred cow because it was your idea. But if you show flexibility to change, it's like giving permission to bring up other sacred cows and say, “Hey, that's not working out so well; what if we did this instead?" Don't retaliate.

Depending on what type of leader you are, you may encourage employees to share feedback in different ways. Recently, American Express OPEN Forum launched The Psychology of Change, a program designed to help business leaders deal with change based on how they lead their companies. To find out your own leadership style, you can take the quiz and download the guide that matches your leadership type. Each guide includes a worksheet that helps to instruct business leaders on how to ask for feedback from their team.

With feedback, it's often not about the feedback itself but how it's delivered that may cause problems. Encourage employees to deliver feedback in the right manner—with a constructive attitude in meetings or in one-on-one settings.

Use words and actions as outlined above to show workers the appropriate way to deliver feedback in your company. You may find you have a healthier working environment when employees feel engaged and encouraged to share feedback—and maybe even a better performing company.

Photo: iStock