The right (and wrong) ways to encourage employee feedback

Fear and futility keep workers from speaking up

Editor's note: This story was updated on July 17, 2018.

Organizations often benefit when employees feel free to voice their concerns—but promoting open communication can be challenging if managers don't use the right strategies, two management professors write in Harvard Business Review.

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According to James Detert, a professor of management at Cornell University, and Ethan Burris, a professor of management at University of Texas at Austin, research shows that organizations have higher retention and stronger performance when employees feel empowered to give constructive feedback.

Reducing fear

Leaders frequently don't realize that some of their habits make employees afraid of providing feedback. For instance:

  • Anonymous feedback "actually underscores the risks of speaking up," Detert and Burris write, by creating the "subtext" that speaking openly without anonymity is dangerous;
  • Open-door invitations to share concerns can be intimidating for employees who must actively choose to approach their superiors; and
  • Efforts to be a relaxed boss who is open to feedback can subtly convey "dominance" and "cause employees to clam up," Detert and Burris say.

Fighting the 'futility' factor

In some companies, employees don't speak up because they think their views won't lead to meaningful change. According to Detert and Burris, this "why bother" attitude is reinforced by leadership behaviors such as:

  • Failing to model effective communication strategies by making sure employee feedback is forcefully communicated to superiors and acted upon;
  • Being unclear about what type of feedback is needed to avoid receiving ideas that are ignored; and
  • Failing to provide resources to follow up on ideas and concerns shared by employees.

Strategies to improve

While getting employees to speak up can be difficult, Detert and Burris say that several best practices can help, such as:

  • Making feedback a regular and casual exchange, so "idea sharing will feel less ominous and more natural;"
  • Being transparent about your feedback process, including providing insight into what feedback will be acted upon;
  • Reaching out and proactively asking employees for their opinions, instead of waiting for them to come to you;
  • Working to be more approachable by "play[ing] down your power" when speaking with employees and holding conversations in more informal settings; and
  • Avoiding mixed signals, like soliciting ideas and then providing overly harsh critiques.

Finally, Detert and Burris say, managers need to set the example by publicly and consistently elevating employees' ideas and concerns to more senior levels. "Employees feel inspired when they see you advocating for them," they write (Detert/Burris, Harvard Business Review, January/February).

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