Although honest feedback doesn’t have to be critical (i.e. a critique), it is mission critical if your organization strives for a high performance culture.
No One to Talk To
We’ve all heard the saying “people don’t quit companies, they quit managers.” When a working environment becomes toxic because of a bad manager, people will leave. What’s worse, some of them will stay, and mentally check out! And the damage spreads rapidly. This is especially true if everyone feels there is no one in management to talk to. As the affected team becomes more and more negative, their bitterness spills over into other areas of the organization. If nothing is done to address the situation, other teams soon feel frustrated and the downhill slide begins.
But what if the person at the top begins to realize that something’s wrong and asks for feedback?
How many beleaguered employees will step up and tell the truth?
Honest Feedback Takes Courage
Here’s the challenge: in a toxic environment, trust is so badly eroded that most employees keep quiet when offered the chance to be heard. Whether their silence is driven by apathy or fear of reprisal makes little difference. Even in a small organization, a poor manager can do a lot of damage before any alarm bells are set off higher up. At that point, recovery may seem impossible to those who have lost faith in their leaders—so they don’t bother trying.
On the flip side, when a leader acknowledges that a problem exists and asks for feedback, employees finally have a chance to address what’s broken in the organization. If one person takes issue with a certain manager, it may be seen as a grudge. When the same message is expressed by almost everyone in the department, real change can happen.
It takes courage to speak the truth in a dysfunctional work environment. But if no one is willing to speak up when asked, everyone suffers the consequences of silence.
Feedback in the Best of Worlds
Even the most open organizations—those that promote honest dialogue and encourage regular feedback as part of a continuous improvement philosophy—can be derailed by the quirks of human nature. Consider, for example, how the best of intentions are stymied in this situation.
Many organizations that embrace 360 feedback use skip-level meetings to ensure that information isn’t filtered or distorted by the power dynamic of the existing hierarchy. In a skip-level meeting, managers meet with employees two or more levels below them to talk about concerns, obstacles, opportunities for improvement, etc. The objective of these meetings is to remove barriers, improve overall communications and keep everyone honest.
Unfortunately, when people find themselves caught between the boss they do know and the boss they don’t know, they are far more influenced by the closer relationship—even if it’s rocky! When given the opportunity to share concerns about their immediate supervisor in a skip-level meeting, the lack of relationship with the higher level manager may prevent people from being candid.
This can lead to situations where a poor manager’s positive self-assessment is not counteracted by any negative feedback from her reports, simply because they’re not familiar with the person asking for input.
Ironically, the existence of a 360 feedback process makes the leadership feel more secure in the impressions they gather about employees and managers alike. As a result, absent any contradictory evidence, an ineffective manager may end up being promoted on the strength of that positive self-assessment alone.
In effect, by withholding their honest feedback, employees facilitate a bad manager’s advancement, instead of contributing to her development (and their own well-being!)
Speak Now Or…
Regardless of the work environment, honest feedback is critical for growth, improvement and change. Sometimes it’s even a question of survival. While speaking up and drawing attention to problems may not be enough to fix a toxic situation, silence ensures the quiet desperation of the status quo. And, if you’re fortunate enough to be part of an organization that embraces feedback, don’t waste your opportunity to contribute to positive change by staying silent.