Company leadership receives input from employees in a variety of formats: Engagement surveys, pulse-check forums, rumors heard in the hallway, supervisors reporting what their teams are saying, etc. Yet, too often company leadership squanders the gift of this input, and actually discourages employees from sharing information from the front lines.
They do this in a few ways:
- They criticize the way the information is getting to them (e.g., “That’s unprofessional for those employees to be gossiping about that in the rumor mill.”)
- They minimize the information coming in as exaggerated or inaccurate (e.g., “It’s not true that we’re secretly reducing headcount, so you’re wrong for worrying about it.”)
- They get defensive about the information coming in (e.g., “We make slower decisions because last year we were told we aren’t including enough people in decisions!”)
- Or they excuse the concerns on account of having different intentions (e.g., “That’s not what we meant when we said that, so employees are just misinterpreting. What we meant was…”)
These impulses are both TOTALLY NATURAL and REALLY COUNTERPRODUCTIVE. They are TOTALLY NATURAL because most leaders are trying their hardest to care for the employee experience. They are neither incompetent nor villainous but often the concerns sting with those implied accusations. These responses are also TOTALLY NATURAL because often they’re true (e.g., Often the information is being discussed unprofessionally, and is exaggerated and inaccurate, and is the result of responding to previous employee input, and is being misinterpreted.). Plus, leaders need to respond to the input in some way, so it’s TOTALLY NATURAL to want to respond with the above.
But these are REALLY COUNTERPRODUCTIVE responses because they typically imply that the employee input is wrong, and people don’t like to be wrong. So if they think you’re telling them they’re wrong, they’re likely to 1) entrench themselves further and start reading into everything to find evidence of their rightness, 2) refrain from bringing you concerns in the future so they don’t have to be accused of being wrong, and/or 3) decide that leadership is just disconnected from reality and can’t be trusted.
So what should company leaders do instead? They have to first make the employees feel heard. Doug Stone, author of books like Difficult Conversations and Thanks for the Feedback is known to say, “I’m a firm believer that people fundamentally can’t change until they feel heard.” Similarly, I believe people can’t listen until they feel heard. The TOTALLY NATURAL and REALLY COUNTERPRODUCTIVE responses above typically prevent employees from feeling heard, and therefore from listening to Leadership’s responses.
For a different outcome, try these three steps to help employees feel heard, which will help them get into the right headspace to listen to your response:
- Ask questions until you understand exactly what they’re saying (e.g., “When you say we must be secretly laying off people, you’re saying the company is letting go of people it shouldn’t be letting go of? Or it’s not being honest about something it should be honest about? Or it’s cutting too much or too little or in the wrong places? I’m trying to understand exactly what your concern is.”)
- Ask questions until you understand why they’re saying that (e.g., “And what is giving you the impression that we’re secretly laying off people? I see – so because so many people have left in recent weeks with little notice, you’re concluding that it’s because they’re being fired as part of a secret layoff.”)
- Ask questions until you understand how they’re feeling as a result. (e.g., “The prospect of a secret layoff concerns you because it violates our corporate value around transparency, and it also leaves you wondering if you or your teammate will be next. Is that right? Yeah, I’d be worried about that too if we were indeed having a secret layoff. Your concern makes perfect sense.”)
Notice that most of us will want to immediately respond to employee input by talking at them – clarifying, defending, etc. Yet all three steps above start with asking for information. This is key – company leaders and/or HR are scary. If people work up the courage to share input with you, and you respond with any of the TOTALLY NATURAL yet REALLY COUNTERPRODUCTIVE responses, you’re likely to shut off an important flow of information. If, instead, you respond with a bunch of questions that help the employee feel heard, you’ve likely built some more psychological safety to encourage more of this in the future, which will enhance your ability to respond appropriately and their ability to hear the response. You can even earn bonus points by thanking employees for sharing their input with you (before you respond to it) and incorporating that input into some change in the company, which you can point to as a direct result of the employee input. In these ways, you’ll be responding to employee concerns that lead to a much more productive environment! Do you disagree or have alternative suggestions? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
Ben works in HR/OD at Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge company dedicated to the simple goal of trying to cure cancer… no big deal! Ben’s on his second career, having spent his first in business/strategy consulting, mostly with Bain & Co and Monitor Group, which basically just means he relies on MS Excel to solve virtually any problem he faces. If he’s not coaching or working with colleagues on their approach to leadership, he’s helping teams create effective dynamics or planning a recognition program to motivate employees. And sometimes, he’s chasing his wife around the ice hockey rink in his weekly pick-up game, or playing tennis, squash, skiing, hiking, mountain biking, or anything else to expend his nervous energy!