How to Take the Fear Out of Feedback

January 9, 2019 John Rossheim

Whether it’s your boss formally weighing in on your performance or a co-worker giving a thumbs up or down to your daily deliverable, feedback is freighted, whether with gratitude, uncertainty, or fear. It’s got to be that way, because we care about how people regard our work, and by extension, what they think of us as professionals.

So when feedback happens, there’s a lot at stake. The question is, do we grow from what we hear, or are we demotivated? It really depends on whether the organization has established a culture of trust, which is also the foundation for the strong working relationships that are key to both individual and corporate success.

Setting the stage for trust

In business organizations, trust begins with top management being transparent in its communications with employees at all levels. “Very often, a work environment that’s short on trust stems from a lack of communication,” says consultant Denise Graziano. “It’s a big problem when companies provide nothing more than need-to-know information. Employees are left to fill in the blanks, which erodes trust.”

Executives who understand that managing effectively means motivating people – not just wielding power – are in a position to create trust within their organizations. “My manufacturing clients tell me that managers who aren’t trained to lead – they don’t know how to build trust,” says Graziano. “Leaders must be visible and present to employees.”

Strict top-down models of management, familiar as they are, often fail to engender trust. “People are used to being told what needs to be done or changed,” says Sylvia LaFair, an executive coach and president of consulting firm Creative Energy Options. So good managers don’t just issue directives; they consistently solicit two-way communication and feedback.

Steps toward a better environment for feedback

In organizations where feedback is put to the most productive use, everyone understands that it’s all about relationships.

“Whether it’s boss-to-report or peer-to-peer, employees need to understand their relationships and the kinds of questions that will activate honest responses,” says LaFair. This means that when you’re seeking feedback, you need to ask a question that doesn’t appear to be soliciting a specific response.

“People have to work at asking open-ended questions,” rather than yes-no questions, says LaFair. You can help people lower their defenses by asking, for example, “I’m curious, what do you think results were of…” or “I wonder what would happen if you….”

How do employees take the fear out of these sorts of conversations? For starters, by getting comfortable with each other in less formal contexts. “You need a leadership structure in place where talking over coffee or lunch isn’t written off as goofing off,” says Leah Omilion-Hodges, associate professor and director of the Center for Communication Research at Western Michigan University. “This does require managers to trust their employees.”

Peer feedback is powerful

Peer feedback is often the most productive, because it can be direct without being threatening.

And peer feedback is relevant. “Peers are more important than leaders in many cases,” says Omilion-Hodges. “In traditional organizations, we spend more time with our peers and do similar work; managers’ tasks are often very different than their subordinates.”

But again, the right environment is a prerequisite to feedback that will actually be heard, rather than drowned out by the recipient’s fears and doubts. “It’s important to give time and space for peer relationships to develop – during the workday,” says Omilion-Hodges. “So the boss sends employees to have a drink after work – on the company credit card – and the boss joins later. Without a baseline personal relationship, it’s easy to discount someone’s contribution.”

A healthy culture of feedback produces results

Let’s take a step back and survey the benefits that a healthy, trusting workplace culture – and the productive feedback that this culture enables – can bring to a company and its workers.

Simply put, “if employers encourage people to share when they see a better way of doing something, that works in favor of the company,” says Graziano.

An employer that encourages healthy feedback can also ignite innovation on many levels of the organization. “[Our research] results indicate that communication exchanges uniquely influence employee creativity, with peer associations being most crucial,” writes Omilion-Hodges. “Asking people to be vulnerable is part of creativity and innovation,” she says. “Ideation is part of the process, not a time waster.”

So there you have it: Trust begets quality feedback that is heard; good feedback begets innovation; and all these processes strengthen working relationships, which beget yet more trust. So good feedback is a virtuous cycle that we can all buy into.

About the Author

John Rossheim

John Rossheim writes about healthcare, diversity, recruiting and human resources.

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