How to Make It Safe for Employees to Give Feedback

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Most organizations make feedback a priority. They encourage managers to give good, actionable feedback, and teach employees how to make use of that feedback. Many organizations also emphasize 360 degree feedback and encourage managers to get feedback from their employees. But not all leaders create an environment where employees feel safe to give open and honest feedback.

It’s not always easy to get honest feedback from your employees. Without cultivating the right environment, all you’ll receive is a polite, but thoroughly useless platitudes and advice so vague as to be safely meaningless.

Employees are often hesitant to give feedback to those who are in leadership positions for reasons ranging from fear of reprisal to simply not wanting to overstep their boundaries. Yet, the feedback your employees have is essential to your improvement and improvement within the organization, so it is imperative that you create an environment that allows employees to feel safe providing feedback.

So how do you create an environment where your employees feel safe and comfortable giving feedback up the line? Here are ten suggestions for how to help your employees feel safe.

  1. Open Up—While you don’t have to be best friends with your employees, you do want your employees to know you’re human. Talk about things you are interested in, find common ground with your employees. Furthermore, be honest about areas you struggle in, not just the areas you excel in. This does not mean being self-deprecating, just be honest, humble, and human. This is something you should be doing before you ask for feedback that first time.
  2. Ask for Feedback—Help your employees know that their feedback is not just welcome, but necessary. You want to grow and improve just as much as you want them to. But just like your employees, you need feedback to see where you’re doing well and where you need to improve. It may be difficult for your employees to give you feedback at first, to help mitigate this fear, ask them specific questions about places where you know you struggle.

Once you’ve put in the ground work for creating a safe environment, consider how you are going to maintain that environment while actually engaged in asking your employees to give you feedback.

  1. Make it a Two-Way Conversation—In order to make feedback conversations most effective, don’t put all the pressure on your employees. Be engaged, make it an actual conversation. On the other side of the equation, don’t be so quick to speak up that your employees feel like they can’t get a word out without interruption.
  2. Establish a Framework—Give your conversation an easy framework to work with by asking three questions:
    • What have I done well?
    • Where do I get stuck?
    • What can I do differently moving forward?

By asking the questions yourself, you help direct the feedback in a way that is useful and create a framework so that your employees know what to expect from the conversation.

  1. Listen Actively—Once an employee feels comfortable enough to start offering feedback, it is absolutely essential that you actively listen. This is more than just sitting quietly while they speak. Active listening involves giving your employee your full attention, reflecting on what they say, and asking clarifying questions to ensure you understand. After all, any feedback your employees give you will be less than helpful if you fail to understand the point they were trying to make.
  2. Ask What Else—After an employee has given you feedback, and you’ve ensured that you’ve actively listened and understood it, don’t stop. Immediately ask them what else. Then, once they’ve given you more feedback, ask again. Do this until they’ve run out of things to share. You’ll learn far more and keep the conversation open to reach the important subjects.
  3. Thank Employees—Thank your employees for their feedback. It was almost certainly a risk the first time one of them provided feedback. A quick, sincere thank you will alleviate some of the tension that your employees may be feeling and reassure them that their feedback was appreciated.

Once you’ve received feedback, ensure that your employees will feel safe giving you feedback a second time by employing these final three tips.

  1. React Positively—How you respond the first time your employees give you feedback will set the course for how your employees will react to your requests for feedback going forward. If you become offended at their feedback, or start a debate over what they’ve said, your employees will take your response as a signal that you don’t actually welcome feedback.
  2. Reflect and Evaluate—When given feedback, reflect on what you’ve been told, and then plan a way forward in response to at least one piece of feedback. This will tell your employees that you really did listen to and value their feedback and will encourage them to provide more feedback later. If you react defensively or refuse to reflect and act on the feedback you are given, your employees will consider any future requests for feedback to be superficial at best, or a trap at worst.
  3. Follow Through—After actively listening to the feedback provided by your employees and making a plan to act on at least one piece of feedback, make sure to follow-through with your employees. Let them see your attempts to improve, and then ask them for feedback on your progress. Once they’ve seen that you took the feedback to heart, they will feel safe to continue giving feedback.

Together, these ten suggestions provide guidelines for creating an environment of safety for your employees to give feedback that will help you to improve in your own work.

Asking for and receiving feedback is one of the easiest and most important ways to take ownership of your own progress and success. Putting in the time to create an environment that will get you that honest and useful feedback is an investment you won’t regret.

And an extra piece of good news? Many of the things you do to create a safe environment for your employees to give feedback are the same things you’ll need to do to create an environment for them to receive feedback. Bonus!

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