Reid Givens

Thoughts from a few decades of marketing, management, and music

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Why Many Employee Feedback Systems Resemble an Abusive Relationship

Good ideas can com from anywhere. Sometimes it’s an expert in the field that has spent years honing their skills that comes up with a good idea. Sometimes, it’s the amateur in the mail room that looks at a situation with beginners mind that has the next great break through. At the end of the day, the more people and perspectives there are looking at a problem, the better the chances are that one of them will have a great idea.

That’s the conventional wisdom and the reason why suggestion boxes existed even before CEO’s started to encourage emails of new ideas from anyone in their employ.

So why doesn’t it work? Or to be less dramatic, why doesn’t work more often?

Let me outline two scenarios. A new hire starts at a company. They went through the interview process and left such a good impression through a combination of how well they interviewed and the experience on their resume that they are offered the job. They come to work excited and ready to make an impact. After being at the company for a few months and are up to speed, they have an idea.

In the first scenario, they bring the idea to their supervisor who is so impressed they take it the CEO. The CEO immediately sees the value in the idea and moves resources around to implement this new idea. The employee is recognized for their contribution and the company at large congratulates them for their brilliance.

We love these stories. When this scenario plays out it becomes lore in the company, and if the idea was big enough, in the industry as well. When the CEO gets interviewed by Forbes Magazine for a feature story on why the company is doing so well, they say “We believe in the power of ideas and we know that good ideas can come from anywhere. My job is to listen. You do that often enough, and you have an endless stream of good ideas. That is how you build competitive advantage.”

After the interview is posted to the Forbes website, suggestion boxes are installed far and wide. Management pronounces their willingness to listen and requests for input are professed in stand-up meetings the world over.

Now lets look at another scenario. The same new hire starts as before and has an idea as before. This time, they share their idea with their supervisor who says “I hear you, but I disagree” and shuts down further discussion, or says “That’s a good idea, but that’s not what our department does / doesn’t align with our current goals,” or worse yet says “That’s a good idea. Let me share that at the next leadership meeting” and then doesn’t because they had no intention of sharing it at all. The idea is dead in its tracks and is never given a chance.

After a few more attempts to bring up ideas and getting any one of the previously stated replies, the employee gives up, disengages, and eventually looks for work elsewhere. They will probably look for a small company or a start-up to work for in hopes that with fewer people in the hierarchy they have a better chance of being heard.

There is so much talk about the importance of accepting ideas from any source that it must happen in a lot of places. I certainly hope that this is true, but when I look at the careers pages or job listings for start up companies and see how often “you’ll have a voice” or “you can make an impact” shows up it makes me think maybe we don’t listen as well as we think.

With all the talk about the looming crisis of a disengaged workforce you have to wonder what is going on. Most people are not satisfied at work, and a big reason is that they do not feel valued. Fundamentally, being heard and recognized is a big part of feeling valued. Possibly the biggest.

Look at any long term, successful, healthy relationship and you’ll notice that no matter how different they all seem one thing remains constant. It’s built on a foundation of mutual respect between equal partners. Whether it’s between friends, romantic partners, or business relationships, everyone has an equal say. Everyone’s voice is heard and their ideas are fully considered. The balance of power in these relationships are equally distributed among all the participants.

By contrast, look at any unhealthy relationship and you will the find the opposite. On party has significantly more power than another. If the party with more power uses it to control the actions of the other party in a way that is counter to their wishes it’s called abuse. Even the idea of an imbalance in power can lead to fear and withdrawal. This is why trust is sited so often as being the cornerstone of a good relationship. We need to trust that the other party will do right by us even if they find themselves in a position where they can exert more power that we can.

When we go to work, we don’t stop being human. We have all the same needs as we do in any other social setting. The challenge at work is that by the nature of the relationship, it’s not inherently built on an equal distribution of power. The higher up the organizational chart a person is, the more power they have with the person at the top having near absolute power.

Dress it up anyway you want with high salary ranges or perks like free massages and ping pong tables, but businesses are organized in hierarchies of power.

This stratification of power in organizations don’t inherently make them bad, but it does present challenges to overcome that have to be directly and actively addressed. The default state of any company regardless of size is not one of equal power.

While it is true that either the company or the employee can terminate employment and walk away, the direct impact of doing so is almost always worse for the employee than for the employer.

An employee losing their job can have catastrophic impacts on their life and is the reason the Job as Property doctrine was created in United States. If an employee in the mail room quits, the CEO’s house is not likely to be in jeopardy of foreclosure. For the employee, it might be.

It is the inherent imbalance of power that makes suggestion boxes, real or virtual, fall short of their intended goals. More is needed than just an avenue of accepting feedback.

First, recognizing the imbalance of power means that those with more of it (higher up in the organization chart) have to expend more energy soliciting and listening to feedback. The higher up the chain you are, the more effort you have to put in. Generic questions like “how are things going”, or “what can we do better” aren’t going to work.

In order to get meaningful feedback, more direct and specific questions need to be asked. “How could we have handled project x better” or “We are thinking about approaching Y like this. What do you think the risks are in taking that approach” are much better questions.

When confronting something undesired in an interpersonal relationship, professionals advice talking about the behavior we want to see changed, not the person. If we state something about a person that we don’t like we are saying that we don’t like that person and the only way to solve this problem is by asking the person to change who they are. If instead we address the behavior we are only talking about something they do that they can change without becoming someone else. The stakes are lower.

A similar tactic can be taken in organizations by removing the focus from the relationship between the entities with questions like “How are WE doing”. Focusing on the dynamics of the relationship will surely bring up disparity in power in the employees mind. Focusing instead on “What we do” is inclusive rather than comparative.

This will help get more feedback, and more meaningful and actionable feedback at that, but it alone will not solve the problem. What is lacking is more about the process and responses to feedback. Like the cornerstone of any successful and healthy relationship, the focus needs to be on building trust. The right kind of trust.

Employees want to trust that they will be heard and their ideas considered. Before they trust that those who manage and lead them will make the right decision, they want to know that they are being heard.

Responding to feedback with “I hear you, but I disagree” and then not fully discussing the idea and both viewpoints tell the employee their opinions are not valued as much as those above them.

Saying “That’s a good idea, but that’s not what our department does / doesn’t align with our current goals,” tells the employee that all important decisions happen above their pay grade and their input isn’t necessary or valued.

And the worst of them all, telling an employee “That’s a good idea. Let me share that at the next leadership meeting” and then the employee never hears about it again leaves them to think that their ideas are not valued and may not have event been considered.

Most people will assume the worst when they have a lack of information. It’s a tendency held over in our lizard brain focused on surviving worst case scenarios by playing them out in our heads. If your feedback and consideration process isn’t fully transparent it’s likely those who made suggestions will infer the worst case scenarios be default.

Closed door strategy meeting that produce directives without divulging how the decision was reached or what considerations were made are a great example of a process that lacks the transparency required to keep the lizard brains quiet.

Having a good employee feedback system takes some dedicated time and effort to do right. Its goal is to build trust and keep the focus on the valued output of the organization rather than reinforcing the imbalance of power in the employee employer relationship. It’s worth it, but it isn’t easy. If it sounds to hard to do or isn’t enough of a priority to put resources behind, it’s probably better to not accept feedback and ideas at all.