By Dr. Teresa Peterson
“They ask for feedback, but they don’t take any action.”
“What’s the point in filling out all these surveys if nothing ever changes?”
“HR asks for feedback because they’re ‘supposed to,’ but it never really goes anywhere when it gets to the leaders.”
“How can I offer valuable feedback when I have no transparency about the big goals or direction of the organization?”
“I don’t want to fill out paper surveys because I feel like they are identifying us by our handwriting, which isn’t super inspiring.”
“We provided feedback like they asked, and the company went another way. Though I’m sure they had their reasons, we never heard anything about how (or if) they used what we said in making their decisions. Just knowing we were heard would have made a big difference.”
These are just some anonymous responses we’ve heard when working with teams to assess challenges and opportunities they see in their organizations when it comes to feedback. Ironically, sometimes the leaders of these same organizations can feel as though they’re solidly on the path to building a “feedback culture”–in other words, an environment in which everyone feels safe to share comments and ideas in pursuit of a shared, larger goal. Ideally, this includes both team members and leaders asking for feedback, healthily receiving feedback, and making adjustments (when appropriate) in response to feedback.
Easier said than done, right?
Let’s encapsulate the responses into a few major themes (and look at ways we can do better):
“Nobody Is Really Listening Anyway.”
Though it can be worded a number of ways, this is the most common response I see to this question. And I get it! With so much on your plate already, why take time to give more of yourself if you feel like nothing is going to change regardless?
In most cases, we don’t operate under the assumption that every piece of feedback we give will be implemented right away, in its entirety. If the answers were that easy to come by, why ask the question in the first place? The pain underneath this response doesn’t necessarily come from, “they didn’t do what I suggested” as much as it comes from “I am not being heard” or “my opinion is not valued.”
Is this true? In some organizations, it is absolutely true. But if it’s not true, and you’re in a position to make change in an organization striving to be better with feedback, consider reframing “asking for input/feedback”–which feels like something you should do in corporate culture–into “finding ways to hear our team members and making sure they know how much we value their input”–which feels like something you should do and also something you want to do in service of making your workplace more human.
“It’s a Trap.”
Feeling safe enough to tell the truth at work is no small thing. In instances where team members are hesitant to provide feedback—even “anonymously” for fear they could be found out—nobody wins.
Here, we see a significant lack of trust and potentially an underlying pattern of quiet (or loud) retaliation. To foster trust and get out of this cycle, you must start by taking steps toward building psychological safety, which includes prioritizing empathy, authenticity, and logic.
In short, there is no quick fix for this problem, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. In fact, if you’re struggling in this department, the efficacy of feedback should perhaps fall a little lower on your priority list.
“Where Is The Transparency?”
Survey fatigue is a real thing, and a lack of transparency can exacerbate it. Sometimes, team members don’t have all the relevant information before being asked to give input. Say you don’t know the ultimate goal of an initiative or how it fits into the long-term strategy, but you’re asked to offer suggestions about how to improve its efficiency. In those cases, it’s nearly impossible to respond productively in such a context deficit.
I also acknowledge that it’s not possible (or even a good idea in some situations) to lay everything out on the table all of the time. Where we can do better, though, is by combining sensible transparency with an abundance of communication.
Say, for instance, that you’re in a leadership position and receive an idea that you think is good. You, however, cannot act on it at the moment. Instead of brushing it under the rug, you could make the team member(s) who offered the feedback feel heard by thanking them for their contribution, explaining the value you got from their thoughts, and letting them know you have internalized that feedback to inform later actions. You could also set up a meeting a few months out to revisit the idea when the timing might be better.
Similarly, if you receive feedback and do take action on it in some way, don’t forget to close the loop with your team. Take the time to draw the line from “you said X, we did X, and that’s how we arrived at X.” It’s a small act that can go a long way.
Bonus: New Ideas Committee
One suggestion I heard at a recent training stuck with me as extra interesting: if you truly want to create a feedback culture, how about creating a committee dedicated to generating new ideas? The committee could be made of employees from all levels of your organization who take an incubator approach, helping each other think through and refine suggestions before deciding collectively which ones should be presented to the executive team.
Sounds like a self-perpetuating feedback and innovation generation machine, if you ask me.
What do you wish was different about the way your organization gathers and utilizes feedback?
If you’re in a position to make change, what actions could you take to ensure–at the very least–that people feel heard and valued for the input they provide? If you’re already doing this, what’s working well?
I’d love to hear your experiences.
Dr. Teresa Peterson
Dr. Teresa Peterson is the Director of Learning and Development for Sarah Noll Wilson, Inc. In her daily work, she serves as Sarah’s key content collaborator. Teresa enjoys facilitating, researching, and is passionate about applying best practices for learning to make our experiences meaningful, engaging, and accessible for all types of learners. Teresa holds a Doctorate in Education from the University of Northern Iowa and brings over twenty years of experience teaching, facilitating, and leading to our team. Our clients love Teresa’s grounded energy, depth of thought, and ability to listen deeply.