Do your employees feel “safe” enough to tell you the truth?


  • August 19, 2019
  • /   Quint Studer
  • /   leadership-tips
Quint Studer shares why it's important to make employees feel safe to  give honest feedback

Part 3 of a 3-part series on feedback

For the past two weeks, we’ve been exploring the importance of having a feedback-focused culture. We’ve covered why companies need to have the right evaluation system in place to make sure employees get regular feedback on their performance. And we’ve discussed why leaders, too, need to be able to receive feedback (especially critical feedback) without taking it personally. 

But what if you’re a leader who never gets feedback from your employees? Does that mean they all think you’re doing everything right? While it might be nice if this were true, it probably isn’t. In most cases it’s because employees simply don’t feel safe enough to speak up and push back. 

That’s the subject of today’s column: psychological safety. If people don’t feel safe enough to tell the truth, you will never be a high-performing organization.

We may feel unsafe when a boss (or any coworker) yells, says hurtful or disrespectful things, threatens retribution, makes irrational demands, and so forth. The primitive part of the brain sees this behavior as life-threatening and the fight-or-flight response takes over. When this happens (or when we anticipate that it might happen), we can’t think, much less speak up when something is wrong. And so we don’t: We shut down and take the “safest” route.
 
There are many reasons we want employees to feel psychologically safe. One big one is because honest feedback is critical to the long-term health of the organization. Employees are closest to operations and have day-to-day exposure to things the boss would never know. If they don’t share the truth about what’s really happening, small problems could turn into major ones. Plus, they will be less likely to be innovative if they are afraid to take risks and fail. 

We live and work in an ideas economy. The only way for a company to get better and stay competitive is to cultivate a culture where employees regularly collaborate, communicate, and innovate. This is where new/good ideas come from. These are the so-called soft skills that are so vital and in demand right now. They simply can’t thrive in an environment where people don’t feel safe and free to share their ideas, perspectives, and feedback.

For all of these reasons, good leaders make it clear that we want and expect feedback, including critical feedback, and we need employees who are willing and able to give it. If not, we will never be able to improve as leaders, drive better performance, and bring out the best in employees. So how do we create a psychologically safe workplace? A few suggestions:

Know the difference between positive feedback and good feedback. We all prefer positive feedback, but make sure you’re not sending the message that this is the only kind you want from employees. Good feedback isn’t always positive. It can be critical or even negative, but it’s always thoughtful and honest. Reward and recognize this kind of feedback when you get it. 

Model vulnerability. Acknowledge your own mistakes and show that you learn from them. This goes a long way toward helping people see that it’s okay to take risks and make mistakes. 

Be aware of how you react to bad news. It gives employees clues as to how you will act when they bring negative feedback. Don’t let them see you blow up when faced with a problem. When this happens, they feel unsafe and are far less likely to share what needs to be shared.

Don’t shoot the messenger. Make it clear that it’s always safe to bring you bad news. When you get upset with people for letting you know something is wrong, you squelch communication. People avoid telling you the truth while issues are still fixable.

Don’t play the blame game. Instead of focusing on who is at fault, focus on what to do now. Blaming solves nothing and it kills accountability. When they know they will be blamed, employees will go to great lengths to avoid telling you about problems that need to be fixed. 

Make seeking out and giving feedback a normal part of the routine. Ask for feedback when you share an idea and give specific guidelines and time frames on where, when, and how. Put processes in place that get employees in the habit of asking for feedback from you and from coworkers at certain stages of a project. You want everyone to get in the feedback habit.

Demonstrate your openness to feedback by taking an opposite or flawed position or making a statement that’s obviously untrue. If someone steps up and points out your error, tell them
thank you. If no one steps up, explain what you did and ask what you can do to make the environment safer so that people will be more willing to speak up in the future.

Take their feedback seriously. When you get a good idea from an employee, use it if you possibly can. Even if something is not a good idea, explain why it may not work; don’t just say no. This teaches people that you really do want their input and you’re not insistent on running the show yourself.

Create rules of engagement. The last thing you want is for someone on your team to get overly confrontational with (or in response to) feedback. When people feel attacked, it shuts down the flow of ideas. Put standards in place for how to manage giving and receiving feedback and for how to handle conflict.

Nurture curiosity. Encourage people to ask why and question decisions. Even if they don’t come away with a better idea or a way to improve it, understanding the thought process behind decisions will help them grow as thinkers and make them more likely to step forward when they do have something to say.

Embrace radical candor. Be direct. Don’t be unnecessarily harsh, but make a point not to sugarcoat the things you say. Likewise, don’t expect things to be sugarcoated for you. Most people respond well to transparency, clarity, and openness. People like knowing where they stand and what is expected of them. This style creates a healthy give and take between leaders and employees.

Get people together face-to-face as often as you can. Technology is a good thing in many ways, but it definitely has its shortcomings. For example, it can be hard to communicate tone with digital communication. Feedback is better given and received in a face-to-face interaction. Plus, it is just easier to build the trust and camaraderie that makes for great teamwork when all parties can see facial expressions and body language.

If someone is generally quiet or unresponsive, call on them to share feedback. Introverts in particular can have a hard time competing with louder voices in the room. They deserve to be heard, too. But also know that they may feel more comfortable expressing their thoughts in writing, after they’ve had a chance to process them.

Separate “truthsayers” from “troublemakers.” Some folks are just going to always be negative or find a problem to vocalize. Don’t let these people poison the well. Separate them and their feedback from the good feedback of others on the team. Rocking the boat is not always good, nor is it always bad. Just learn the difference between good feedback and disruptions.

Creating conditions that help people feel safe is one of the most important tasks of a leader. A leader’s job is to help people do their best work as well as improve and grow so they can perform at an even higher level in the future. Psychological safety is the basis for all kinds of positive emotions like trust, confidence, and curiosity—all of which pave the way for vital skills like critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity.

When we help people develop and nurture these skills, we give them a great gift. We set them up to thrive, not just inside our company but throughout their career.