Why Is Getting Feedback From Employees So Hard? | Bonfyre

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Why Is Getting Feedback From Employees So Hard? | Bonfyre Breakdown

4 min

Getting feedback from employees shouldn’t be difficult.

After all, how hard could it possibly be to sit down with an employee, ask how they think the workplace can be improved, and receive a candid and honest response? Researchers Hemant Kakkar and Subra Tangirala intend to find out.

Tangirala is an associate professor of management and organization at Smith School of Business, University of Maryland. Kakkar is a PhD candidate in organizational behavior at London School of Business. Together, the pair recently authored an article for the Harvard Business Review (HBR) detailing their research into how and why employees give feedback in the workplace. Today on the Bonfyre Breakdown we’re taking a closer look at their findings mean for company culture.

The factors influencing how employees give feedback

Kakkar and Tangirala’s study examined two primary factors affecting the process of getting feedback from employees: personality perspectives and situational perspectives.

Personality perspectives are concerned with, you guessed it, the personalities of people most likely to give feedback. If an employee is too shy or introverted, the logic of personality perspectives dictates that they might be less likely to give feedback.

Situational perspectives are concerned with employees’ working environment. If there’s a dearth of employee-provided feedback, a situational perspective would suggest that there is something about that company’s environment that is stifling it.

Kakkar and Tangirala wanted to know whether personality or environment matters more when getting feedback from employees. Below, we’ll be recapping their findings, but if you want to hear more about their methodology and the limitations of their study, we suggest you read their report for HBR.

First, the authors found that, taken on their own, personality factors and situational factors had a strong effect on an individual’s likeliness to speak up. In other words, individuals with personalities naturally inclined to voice their feedback would lean into those tendencies in the workplace. Similarly, employees who believed that voicing feedback was an expectation of their job–a situational element of work–would speak up more than employees who did not feel that was an expectation.

Nothing surprising so far, right? Here’s where it gets interesting. Kakkar and Tangirala found that the environmental norms have the potential to “override the influence of personality on employees’ willingness to speak up at work.” Put another way, a company’s culture can bring out the very best ideas in employees–or suppress them.

“This finding suggests that if you want employees to speak up, the work environment and the team’s social norms matter,” the authors write. “Even people who are most inclined to raise ideas and suggestions may not do so if they fear being put down or penalized.”

Fear makes getting feedback from employees harder

So we know culture affects the ways employee give feedback, and how often they give it too. What do you do with that information if you’re trying to turn your culture around? It starts with examining why employees don’t give feedback in the first place.

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As we’ve said time and again, every organization is different. It’s frankly impossible to unearth a universal answer to questions as complex as ‘Why aren’t my employees telling me what they think? And when they do, why aren’t they being honest?’ That said, there are a few “gimmes” worth exploring here.

Perhaps the most obvious answer is fear. The quickest way to stop getting feedback from employees is to start punishing them for speaking their minds. This is not a revolutionary concept–Kakkar and Tangirala even address it in the quotes above. If you make employees fear for their livelihoods when they try to provide feedback, they will stop engaging in the behaviors that result in those punitive measures. Plain and simple.

What’s more, undoing the damage won’t be as simple as saying, ‘Well, we just won’t punish employees for speaking their minds anymore.’ Fear-based leadership styles have a habit of infecting company culture and create deeply ingrained, toxic attitudes that are hard to uproot.

“Fear-based company cultures become self-sustaining ecosystems,” writes Rob Seay, Bonfyre’s Director of Employee Experience. “Leaders adept at wielding fear in the workplace will hire, promote, and otherwise develop talent that can do the same.”

If fear in the workplace is your feedback problem, then you’ve got a long road ahead of you. Seay says one method for exterminating fear requires an intervention from HR, and a hard look at the uneven power dynamics that are being abused in the workplace. This process is not easy, but getting feedback from employees won’t be either until it’s dealt with.

Related: Why Creating a Company Culture Where Everyone Has a Voice Matters

Apathy: the silent feedback killer

Sometimes, however, employees aren’t afraid of giving feedback. Apathy is a common roadblock to getting feedback from employees, perhaps even more pervasive than fear. As much as some leaders might like to think apathy is a personality issue, it’s not. Employee apathy is, in fact, a cultural issue.

Apathy in the workplace arises when employees fail to see the value of raising their voices in the first place. Sometimes it’s a consequence of lame duck leadership. Employee silence can be earned after several earnest attempts to provide feedback to leaders fails.

If leaders prove with inaction or indifference that they don’t care about feedback, then employees are going to stop wasting their time. Similarly, research shows even if these employees do speak up, they’re likely to withhold information if they don’t feel there’s anything to be gained from it.

It should come as no surprise that leaders play an instrumental role in fighting this apathy. In recently released ebook Why Company Culture Matters, SSM Health’s Becki Feldmann, one of our featured culture experts had some words of wisdom for leaders: start a conversation with employees, and don’t always assume you know what’s best.

“Don’t make assumptions on what employees want and need—ask them,” Feldmann says. “This ask shouldn’t be a one-time thing (think boring annual survey). It should be an ongoing conversation that becomes so normal that employees feel that they are always heard and connected to the organization.”

Apathy and fear aren’t the only factors preventing leaders from getting feedback from employees, but they are some of the most common. If your feedback efforts aren’t working out, now might be the time to consider Kakkar and Tangirala’s research. Employees want to feel like their voices matter. Does your culture support those voices or silence them? 

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