When it comes to leaders seeking feedback, not all feedback is created equal: leaders must work to create an environment that not only invites employees to speak up, but also fosters thoughtful, well-formed ideas—feedback that is actually helpful.
John Sumanth, Exxon-Calloway Fellow and assistant professor of Organizational Behavior at the Wake Forest University School of Business, along with David Hoffmann, professor and chair of the Organizational Behavior Area at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, developed five tips for getting more useful employee responses.
When employees feel free to give feedback, good things happen: higher employee engagement and job satisfaction, enhanced innovation and creativity, fewer accidents and safer workplaces, among other things.
“But reviewing open-ended comments on an employee survey or ideas in a suggestion box, it quickly becomes clear that not all voice is created equal,” says Sumanth. “Simply put, not all voice is good voice, and merely increasing the frequency and volume of speaking up is not enough.”
So what can leaders do to improve the feedback that they get?
First, he suggests, put limits on your supportiveness.
“Being supportive can backfire, especially if you unintentionally send the message that all voice is equal,” says Sumanth. “Make clear that you value thoughtful input more than just any input.”
The second piece of advice he offers is to be accessible but demand high accountability, meaning that leaders should make efforts to hear individual suggestions but also reinforce that input is taken seriously and therefore needs to be fully formed. He also suggests leaders should help people see their biases.
“Most employees will view a particular policy or process from a narrow, functional perspective, and very few recognize that they have such a biased view of the situation,” he says. “You’ll get better input if you help employees understand the bigger picture before proposing a solution.”
Finally, finding “informants” to bring ideas to you can help filter and aggregate feedback and make sure you get the best, most helpful ideas, and “closing the loop” by explaining why you did or did not act on their suggestions. These strategies not only encourage more employees to speak up, but also shows their voices have meaningful, positive impact.