­­­The 360-feedback game. Have you played it? Better question, have you played it well? There is a difference, and it would be wonderful if more played it well. That’s no slight on any employee, per se, but rather more of a commentary on the receipt of organizational critique.

Recently, I chatted with a few company founders. They each shared how they’d like to know what their staff are thinking. They spoke about a disconnect from where they sit and what is actually happening from the point of view of entry- to mid-level employees. Each shared various concerns about edited or muted commentary making its way back to them, whether due to managers keeping a lid on problems or a supervisor unsure as to when to bring things up. “Causing ripples in the water can be a death sentence,” one leader shared. “Who wants to be the person to cause a management meeting to go longer?”

Ah, that starts to hit the nail, right? The idea of being the “troublemaker” on the management team by bringing up feedback or critique stymies the very kind of organizational health meant to be discussed at those meetings. A cycle of restraint leaving leaders thinking all is well in their company’s world (and heaven forbid a meeting go longer for a valid reason!).

In My Best Friend’s Wedding, the premise of not sharing information is taken to a comedic and dark place. Julianne “Jules” (Julia Roberts) realizes that she loves her best friend, Michael (Dermot Mulroney), after he tells her he’s engaged to Kimberly “Kimmie” (Cameron Diaz). Maybe Jules should have figured things out years earlier, but now the chase is on (literally, across green fields and the city of Chicago) to share this feedback. She must tell him. And risk ruining everything.

When feedback has as its primary consideration what negative effect it will cause, the mechanism is neither an effective tool nor likely to be utilized. Those leaders who shared with me were longing to know. All of them were sure that there were pieces of information that would greatly benefit the structure and/or the culture of the organization. Yet, the poor view of its effect on the deliverer of that feedback overshadowed the potential positive effects.

For sure, all those leaders left our conversation feeling like they ought to take the first step by verbalizing a commitment to constructive feedback. That commitment needs to be more than just saying we want to listen but teaching management how to seek and receive it. Often, the breakdown is in the employee-to-supervisor level. There is very little, if any, training offered to supervisors as to how to maturely ask for and receive feedback. Supervisors are usually in a tactical space getting work done and are not encouraged to consider first level transformational information gathering. When “feedback” is synonymous with “complaint,” then supervisors will knee-jerk into shutting any commentary down. They think that’s what they ought to do, that the company would want them to stop any complaining. Supervisors will do better if they know better, truly.

And it’s okay for small steps towards improvement to be made in feedback gathering. Manage your expectation for everyone’s adoption of the “new way” we do things. Feedback connects to an employee’s trust quotient. Can they really believe you want to know? If it’s been years of suppression or fear, then expecting an overnight change is foolish. Take it in incremental steps.

Expectations have to be managed at the onset of feedback as well as on the back end. Jules did not get Michael after she shared her feelings. He still married Kimmie. If staff believe that whatever feedback they offer will be met with immediate action or complete acceptance by all involved, then disappointment will set in and detract from the offering of critique. Why bother if they don’t change? Tackle those expectations, too.

This is not an easy boat to turn around. It will take time and a supportive team to implement. I’ll say a little prayer for you along the way…

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