How leaders at all levels create space to receive constructive feedback

By Dr. Bill Howatt and Louise Bradley

Feedback is important in the workplace at any time, especially now, as many leaders at all levels within organizations are struggling to keep employees who are working remotely connected to their work and colleagues in a meaningful way.

For employees to feel valued, included and engaged, they need to feel safe to share their views. Healthy, caring organizations understand this, and recognize that this type of empowerment can have a profound impact on the employee experience and the strength of employee-leader relationships. Unfortunately, feedback is a gift that far too few managers or leaders encourage or accept.

Many work environments haven’t evolved to reach this level of trust and respect. Some encourage positive feedback, but don’t welcome constructive input because they consider it to be negative. One study reported that six out of 10 employees felt intimidated to share their concerns with their boss or manager.[1] And it isn’t a one-sided problem, either. The Harvard Review reports that two-thirds of managers are uncomfortable giving their employees feedback.[2]

It’s clear that the conversation around feedback must be reframed, and it should be emphasized that employee-to-manager and manager-to-employer feedback are both critical to the health and success of the organization.  This should occur at all levels: employees should feel safe to provide feedback to their supervisors or directors, and mechanisms should be in place to allow for feedback to the senior executive team.

In a recent article posted on this blog, Tony McGrath, CEO of The Grand Theatre in Alberta talked about the importance of two-way feedback in a healthy, respectful workplace.[3]

He explained that staff should feel safe to ask you how you are doing. They should feel safe to tell you if you are being short in your answers, your body language is negative, or you look like your health is suffering.

So, how would you assess your openness to receiving feedback? Rate your level of agreement to the following statements on a scale from one to 10, with one being completely disagree, and 10 being completely agree.

  • I have one-on-one conversations with employees to encourage them to provide feedback.
  • I am confident that my employees feel safe to provide constructive feedback, and have routine and accessible mechanisms in which to do so.
  • My employees share their observations and provide feedback to me.

To score above seven, you need to intentionally create space and assurance that it is OK and safe to engage in this type of exchange. You can start to build this confidence by modelling the behaviour you want to see from others and managing your emotions in the face of criticism.

Consider the following tips to improve the way you receive feedback from employees.

  • Be honest with yourself - If you’re not getting regular feedback from employees, this may be a sign that work is needed. In a workplace culture that actively encourages employees to use their creativity and to share their thoughts, there is little chance they will not offer up questions, feedback, and ideas on a regular basis.
  • Ask employees to provide feedback - If you aren’t currently encouraging and coaching employees on how to provide feedback, now is a good time to start. Have the conversation with employees on a regular basis. For direct reports, this should ideally be in a one-on-one format, but also ensure there are other mechanisms in place for feedback across the organization.
  • Remember that feedback is purely information - Leaders with developed emotional intelligence do not automatically try to defend themselves against constructive feedback. Instead, they encourage it and accept that providing feedback is nothing more than employees sharing their point of view. Just because an employee says something does not necessarily mean it is accurate, but it could be. If you need to make a change, you can. If an employee has the wrong impression about something, you can start to shift their thinking. The important thing is that it starts a conversation.
  • Walk the talk - Many organizations write value statements that say they encourage open feedback and ongoing self-evaluation, but it isn’t practiced in reality. The Canadian Standards Association and Mental Health Commission of Canada’s National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, which helps organizations reduce mental harm and promote mental health, stresses the importance of regularly measuring perception against reality. To help turn talk into action, continuously monitor the level of confidence among employees to provide feedback to managers and to each other. Take the time to evaluate the input you receive and make improvements where necessary.

Employees who do not feel safe to share their point of view with their managers or leadership can feel stressed and powerless, which, if not properly addressed, could lead to a decline in morale and mental health. It may also discourage employees from identifying wrongdoing, which could further exacerbate morale and be harmful to an organization. Taking the time to ask for feedback and providing meaningful mechanisms for employees to provide it allows for managers and leadership teams to discover blind spots and determine whether change is needed to improve the employee experience.


1 https://nypost.com/2020/03/02/most-employees-are-too-intimidated-to-talk-to-their-boss-about-work-issues/
2 https://hbr.org/2016/03/two-thirds-of-managers-are-uncomfortable-communicating-with-employees
3 http://www.ceohsnetwork.ca/news/the-grand-turnaround-respect-and-inclusion-take-centre-stage-at-the-alberta-theatre/


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