In my 20 years of leading teams both large and small, I’ve never heard anyone say, “We wish you would pretend to ask our opinion more!”
Of course, all staff want to and should be heard, but pretending to ask their opinions is always worse than not asking at all. People are perceptive, so they can usually tell when you are not really asking, and ultimately it makes them lose (and often never regain) trust in the leader.
And when you pretend to ask, it might sound a lot like when you ask your better half, “Does this outfit make me look fat?” Everyone knows if you want to have a nice evening out, there is only one answer to that question.
So how can you be more authentic and credible when collecting feedback?
- Decide if there really are two or more paths available to the organization and if staff feedback will lead to a better decision. If there really is only one viable path, don’t ask. Instead, explain the reasoning behind your decision. As the leader, sometimes you must decide, and you probably have access to more information to inform your decision. Being authentic in what led you to make the decision can go a long way, especially with bad news. Show empathy when the situation warrants it.
- Ask clear questions and use anonymous spot polls. The technology to do this online is ubiquitous and many free versions exist. This type of poll also helps the normally quiet voices be heard equally along with those who regularly speak up. Long surveys generally have lower response rates and can be less valuable.
- Right-size the number of open-ended questions in surveys. If the staff survey respondent pool is large, voluminous free response answers are a bear to code and analyze correctly. Also, have someone objective (read: external) review and process the data. You can always go back with another survey to do a deep-dive on a specific topic if you need more information.
- With any committees you form to help in the decision-making process, make sure they have members that are generally perceived as competent and credible, represent the diversity of staff views, and are not afraid to speak their mind. If the committee looks cherry-picked with “yes men/women,” everyone will think it is a sham and waste of company time.
- Consider the appropriateness of collecting one-to-one feedback, and if you do, don’t spend the whole time trying to sway the other person to your view. It’s a huge turn-off when someone barely has the chance to express what they think and you are already giving the impression that if they don’t agree with you there will be a mark against them.
- Tell folks how their feedback will factor into your decision-making before you collect it. Don’t give the impression that you will go with the will of the people and then do the opposite. Be prepared to share data collected and present it objectively, or risk your staff making and projecting their own analysis of what people really think.
- Don’t tell some staff how you plan to act on an issue while telling others you haven’t made up your mind yet. News travels fast, and leaders don’t always really know who is friendly with whom in an organization. I like to say there is invisible fiber optic cable carrying information throughout any organization.
- Be present after you announce a decision and deliver only good news on Fridays or before holidays. It’s hard to be the bearer of bad news, but looking like you are running away from your decision doesn’t breed confidence in you as a leader.
- Own bad decisions. Everyone makes a bad decision every once and a while. The most authentic thing you can do is own it. This lets staff know it’s ok for them to be open and own it if they make a bad decision.
Full disclosure, my husband came up with the title of this piece after I shared the concept. Note to self: Stop asking him if I look fat in this dress.
Joyce Warner is the executive director of the national nonprofit The Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund (FEEA). In this position, she works closely with the FEEA board of directors to develop and execute the organization’s strategy to serve federal public servants in need. Joyce also serves as board chair of the City Arts & Prep Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. Warner's prior experience included serving as the executive vice president of global programs and senior vice president and chief of staff of IREX; deputy director of the US-Ukraine Foundation’s Community Partnerships Project; and as a program manager at Wellstart International, working in the area of maternal and child health protection. She received her BA from SUNY at Stony Brook, her MA from American University, and her MBA from Virginia Tech University. Joyce is a Certified Association Executive (CAE) and Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR).