How do you know if a supervisor is being genuine when they ask for feedback?  This is a question I hear asked by many clients and colleagues.  Too often, senior managers and supervisors tell their employees they want their honest feedback.  It could be in regard to a policy, corporate direction, the state of morale in the organization, or any number of things.  But how do you, as an individual, know that what you share honestly will be taken to heart, considered, or even heard?  How do you know when providing feedback is futile?

A Case Study

About fifteen years ago I joined the Human Resources Department at one of Canada’s largest financial institutions.  I had been there about a month when I and others in our branch were invited to a team building exercise.  

So…I have a confession to make.  I find most of these team-building initiatives puerile, sophomoric and an utter waste of time.  This one was no different.  Even though it was well intentioned, senior management had employees perform a number of silly, inane tasks all with the purpose of promoting cooperation, fellowship and sharing.  Afterwards, we were rewarded with a team luncheon at one of Toronto’s tonier dining establishments.  

As my colleagues and I sat finishing our desserts and coffee the Vice President of Human Resources, a truly sincere and wonderful individual, got up and shared the results of our Department’s recent employee attitude survey.  The results were dismal, and that is putting it kindly.   The Vice President asked for feedback, and a few offered perfunctory but non-committal responses.  Overall, the discussion was punctuated with long silences, lots of staring at hands politely folded in laps, and quizzical looks.  Finally, the VP ended this torture by pronouncing herself ready, willing and available to listen to anyone who wanted to share ideas.

Shortly afterwards, as I walked back to the office, I couldn’t help but pick up snippets of conversations from those in retreat.  To describe the comments as negative would be an understatement.  There was lots of cursing, sarcasm and negativism.  When I asked one employee why she didn’t speak up at the meeting she replied that it “wouldn’t matter a damn”, and senior management wouldn’t listen anyway.

Reflections from afar

I have often reflected on this event several times over the intervening years.  As a recent hire I didn’t participate in these discussions or the survey, but later, following several more negative reviews, I did make my opinions and suggestions known.  Did it do any good?  No.  Did it make any difference?  No.  Did senior management listen or heed anything that I and others said? No.

How do you know when leaders are serious about receiving feedback?

So, how do you know when people are genuinely interested in receiving feedback?  Here, I submit, are several tell tale signs that can help you gauge whether your supervisor, director or leader is serious about receiving feedback:

1. They set aside sufficient time to listen and engage with others.  Someone who is interested in gathering feedback will dedicate the appropriate amount of time to listen and engage.  That means more than five or ten minutes.

2. They invest sufficient effort in gathering the feedback.  Any individual who is hopeful of gaining insights into people’s thoughts, feelings and perspectives will have thought through many of the issues, and come prepared with some thoughtful and reflective questions.  Queries such as “What do you think” aren’t sufficient to generate insightful comments.

3. They take notes.  I am always impressed when I go into a meeting and the person I am speaking to is taking the time to record what is being said either in writing or on a tablet or notebook.  Relying on memory is never a good idea, and active listening often means writing down exactly what was said.

4. They consult not just with the whole group but with individual members.  Sometimes peer pressure can stifle individual feedback or different perspectives. In a group if the person seeking feedback sets up a process to gather not just collective but individual concerns and feedback that tells me they are serious about gaining insights.

5. There is a timetable for where and how that feedback will be used.  Show me someone who has an agenda and timeframe for how and when feedback is gathered and I’ll show you someone who has at least thought through the consultation process.

6. There is a process for evaluating the feedback.  As with a timetable, someone who has taken the time and trouble to identify the phases of a consultation process would appear serious about gathering input.

7. They give assurances that there will be no recriminations against those who are critical.   Often in the workplace employees fear that speaking their minds will result in negative consequences.  To allay those consequences a manager or supervisor must be willing to provide concrete assurances that honesty will not be reprimanded or punished.

8. They share honestly the results on the feedback that was received.  If, after gathering the feedback, a leader is willing to share the content, both good and bad, that speaks to openness, candour and honesty.

9. They don’t “cherry pick” the feedback that was received.  A leader who omits negative feedback or dissenting opinions is more interested in placating the status quo than in making changes.

10. They implement at least some of the feedback, or they research additional issues.  As an employee the best assurance that feedback is being taken seriously is when certain actions that were suggested are implemented.

11. They credit those who offer suggestions even if some of those suggestions aren’t implemented.  If a leader is prepared to acknowledge that certain suggestions emanated from specific employee feedback that speaks volumes about their commitment to change and improvement.

12. They institute a process through which feedback can be provided in future.  A leader who is genuinely interested in engaging their team will have a formal process through which feedback is actively sought, considered and, where viable, implemented.

A final thought …

The Vice President of our Department left in 2006.  Over the course of the next nine years three different individuals succeeded her in the role.   Year after year the results of our Department’s employee attitude survey remained below average, at or near the bottom of the Bank.  In 2014 the results were released and they were particularly bad.  Once again, we went through the obligatory feedback process, but this time people in our Department spoke up assertively and in unison.  We provided honest feedback, suggestions and ideas for improvement.

Did it do any good?  Did it make a difference?  Did senior management listen or heed anything that was said?  

The answer is…I don’t know.  What I can tell you is that of the 34 people in our Department who attended this review meeting only 3 remain employed anywhere in the Bank today.  Virtually every employee in our Department was gone by the end of 2015.

As I mentioned in a previous blog speaking truth to power can sometimes come at a high price.  Speaking that truth when feedback is neither welcomed nor seriously considered may not only be futile but costlier than you could imagine.