You may have read recently about Michael Stuban, an employee of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission who recently retired.

Stuban made the news because minutes before leaving his job of 35 years, he submitted an exit questionnaire to the HR department, in which he criticized the current culture of organization.

As reported by The Washington Post:

Stuban had already decided to use the questionnaire to get a few things off his chest, penning a brutally frank assessment of his colleagues and bosses and how they functioned inside the state-run agency.

...Seconds later, his sharp-tongued missive landed in the inboxes of 2,000 fellow employees.

Weeks later, during an interview with the Philadelphia Daily News, Stuban, who retired on Thanksgiving Day, seemed to be at peace with his decision.

"When they asked for an honest exit interview, I gave them one," he told the newspaper. "I sent it minutes before I officially retired."

In his questionnaire, Stuban revealed what he saw as systemic problems within the organization, including statements like:

  • teams have "no morale"
  • "employees are kept in the dark" (Stuban also gave an example to prove his point)
  • "executive level management is out of touch with the average employee, only looking out for themselves"

Since this story originally appeared, many have castigated Stuban for his response, saying his action was not constructive and unnecessarily burned bridges.

That may be true. But I took away a completely different set of lessons.

What True Transparency Looks Like

All companies say they value transparency and honesty. Most are lying.

A truly transparent company--one that encourages open and honest communication from all employees--is hard to find. Instead, in most organizations you'll find a complex web of office politics. Employees have limited access to managers and team leads; and those who do are often hesitant to share critical opinions, for fear that in doing so they risk getting blackballed, demoted, or even dismissed.

If you really want to be transparent, do this:

1. Prove it--by rewarding honest feedback.

Instead of building echo chambers and promoting groupthink, encourage your people to express opposing viewpoints and opinions. Then, reward them for doing so, and use their feedback to make you and your company better.

If you continue to praise and reward employees for giving you authentic feedback, you'll continue to receive it.

2. Focus on content. Not delivery.

There's a valuable lesson in the comments offered by Sean Logan, chairman of the Turnpike Commission (and one of Stuban's bosses). In an interview with PennLive, he said:

"I would love to have received that criticism in a more constructive way because it does make you think. Should I have communicated more frequently? That's a valid point."

Of course, if you need to deliver negative feedback, by all means be respectful and make it constructive.

But if you're on the receiving end, you don't have that luxury. You've already gotten it. The question is, what will you do with it?

Instead of wasting time and energy rating how ideally criticism was delivered, ask yourself:

  • How can I use this feedback to help me or my team improve?
  • Putting my personal feelings aside, what can I learn from this alternate perspective?

Even if negative feedback is unfounded, it can still give you a valuable window into your employees' perspective. (My forthcoming book outlines specific strategies for delivering and receiving criticism with emotional intelligence.)

And one more practical tip:

If you send out an internal questionnaire, or meet with an employee for a one-to-one, encourage your people to share their thoughts as if today was their last day on the job.

Just like Stuban did.

Because feedback like that is a gift. It's your job to make the most of it.

Published on: Dec 15, 2016
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