Without knowing what's going wrong in your business, you can't fix things, but employees are generally hesitant to be the bearers of bad news. And as Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Company, pointed out on Signal v. Noise recently, they're often even more reluctant when they suspect that you might not exactly welcome this sort of negative feedback with open ears.
"The biggest reason I didn't give my boss feedback is I believed that even if I did speak up, nothing would change. I believed my boss wouldn't do anything with my feedback. No action would be taken. And if nothing was going to change, what was the point of me saying anything?" she recalls of her days as a frontline employee. Apparently, she isn't alone.
"Futility has been found to be 1.8 times more common than fear as a reason for employees not speaking up to their managers. According to a 2009 Cornell National Social Survey, more employees reported withholding their ideas due to a sense of futility (26%) than a fear of personal consequences (20%)," she reports.
So what's the remedy for this fear that negative feedback will simply be ignored? Don't wait around for your employees to magically become bolder, Lew advises. Instead, try these three simple techniques for encouraging the sort of open environment that will convince your team you'll actually take their suggestions seriously.
1. Don't shoot the messenger. Celebrate her.
Even if you don't agree with or act on the next piece of negative feedback you receive from a member of staff, take a moment to publically thank that employee for bringing her concerns to you. Lew offers Amanda Lannert, the CEO of Jellyvision, as a positive example of this principle: "during an all-hands meeting, she publicly thanked an employee who spoke up and gave feedback."
2. Explain WHY nothing was done.
Among the most discouraging things that can happen for employees is to screw up the courage to present negative news to the boss and then see absolutely no action taken. So if you get a piece of feedback that isn't practical to act on for whatever reason, be sure to take the time to explain to your employees why you were unable or unwilling to make changes.
"Expose your decision-making process," advises Lew. "If you don't, employees will wonder, 'What ever happened to that idea I suggested?' They'll assume that you're not open to receiving new ideas, and they'll hesitate to bring up feedback the next time around."
3. Start small.
If you haven't been encouraging your employees to give you negative feedback previously, it's probably too much to expect them to approach you with really substantive complaints straight off the bat. So begin by acting on small suggestions to prove your openness to hearing the bad along with the good.
Lew gives another example from a fellow CEO, in this case Dave Bellous, the co-CEO of Yellow Pencil. He learned that "his company needed a new phone service. So he promptly changed their phone service, and saw an immediate shift in his team's morale. This one unassuming change yielded huge results. All because he acted on something small quickly," Lew writes.
When's the last time you encouraged your team to come to you with their complaints and problems?