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Opinion: How to foster a feedback-rich culture

Smart Ways Series

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Insufficient dialogue can create trouble for companies. When people can’t raise questions, challenge ideas or discuss important issues honestly, it compounds problems rather than solves them.

Managers may claim to want honest input, but employees may be hesitant. They could have been burned in the past. Maybe the boss reacted irately, criticized them in public or, even worse, punished them on their performance review for their opinions. 

If you don’t have a feedback-rich environment, perhaps your company was originally designed for top-down communication.

In the Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends Survey, organizational design was the most important issue to leaders for the past two years. Why? Because optimizing company performance today requires a radically different approach than 10 years ago, according to Deloitte’s findings.

In the past, organizations weren’t designed to be as agile and adaptive as current shifting business conditions demand. Millennial-run companies often understand what’s needed, and they design their organizations for agility and speed, using productive dialogue and effective organizational communications as drivers for better results.

In my client work, leaders who improve feedback often tell me they see better employee engagement or that it helped departments solve operational problems because they could course-correct faster. Improving feedback loops in a company also tends to enhance morale, trust, recruitment and employee retention.

Here are several ways managers can create feedback-rich cultures:

1. Create reprisal-free dialogue. When people don’t feel it’s safe to raise sensitive issues with management, either they don’t speak up or they tell the boss what tickles the ear. Employees need safety, and leaders provide it by the way they give and receive feedback. The best managers aren’t dismissive or defensive when an employee questions a decision, offers another suggestion or disagrees with a stated opinion. Such managers also are good listeners and express appreciation when others make the effort to speak up.

2. Make it safe for people to admit mistakes or ask for help. Comfort with openly discussing mistakes or asking for help is fundamental to high-performing teams.

Too often, however, blaming others is the norm. This proves futile because progress can’t be made on key challenges or recurring problems. Leaders will benefit from improving psychological safety and their own approachability with employees.

3. Be transparent. Successful feedback only thrives if there’s transparency between layers of management and employees. When leaders are transparent enough to admit they don’t have all the answers or that they could use some input and help from others, this encourages others to be forthcoming when they need assistance.

4.Put feedback into your routine. Weaving the behavior you want into the culture isn’t difficult, but it does require deliberate action. As you walk through the hallways or grab a cup of coffee, take an interest in people’s lives. Offer your feedback but also ask for their opinions, and listen.

5. Strengthen organizational dialogue. Productive dialogue is so important to an organization’s strength. It minimizes disengagement and behaviors to protect one’s turf, and instead improves alignment and team effectiveness. Without fixing the effectiveness of dialogue, creating and sustaining necessary change is problematic.

In my experience, if employees aren’t comfortable raising issues that concern them, if employees don’t feel like the boss genuinely listens and considers their input, then an organization lacks the full benefit of a feedback-rich culture.

Productive dialogue is an essential management tool today and smart leaders decide how to improve it.

Consultant and professional speaker Mark Holmes is president of Springfield-based Consultant Board Inc. and SalesRevenueCoach.com. He’s also the author of “The Five Rules of Megavalue Selling.” He can be reached at mark@salesrevenuecoach.com.

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