How to Better Elicit Upward Feedback
 
Brianna Johnson

Many benefits arise from embracing a people-centric culture. People that feel like their employer cares about their well-being and their thoughts and ideas about the firm, too, are typically more engaged and motivated in their daily work. Part of this people-centric culture includes a commitment to ongoing learning and development. Stretching that commitment across every level, where the firm’s most experienced leaders are still focused on getting better, reminds employees that personal development is valued and the possibilities for growth are endless.

Because a get-better environment includes the thoughts and opinions of employees, your firm must foster a culture where employees feel comfortable providing upward feedback. However, it is sometimes difficult to elicit honest feedback about the performance of the firm’s leaders. There are a variety of reasons for this. For instance, if an employee perceives that upward feedback isn’t readily embraced by an individual or by the firm’s culture as a whole, he or she is unlikely to volunteer their opinion. Jennifer Wilson lists some of the reasons that individuals may be hesitant to share in her blog, “Speak Up!” but I’ll list just a few here:

  • Fear of making a career-inhibiting move by speaking up
  • Fear of being chastised or made fun of because of a past experience where that happened before
  • Fear of tarnishing a relationship with a higher-level colleague when the feedback is constructive
  • Fear that the their opinion or idea isn’t warranted unless they have all the facts and figures laid out to back it up

However, like Jennifer mentions in her article, firm leaders DO want to hear the ideas and thoughts of their employees because:

  • Employees provide fresh perspectives on subjects that the leadership team may have not considered yet
  • Feedback allows firm leadership to identify who their up-and-comers are because articulating a vision for the firm and demonstrating a desire to improve strategy and growth in others are valuable leadership characteristics
  • Feedback helps firm leaders measure employee satisfaction and areas where they can make changes to improve morale or engagement
  • Generational shifts require giving – and getting more feedback. Millennials desire feedback for themselves and want to work in an environment that values and acts on their input as well
  • Great leaders desire to keep developing personally and the developmental feedback they require tends to dwindle as they attain higher levels in their careers

People are far more motivated and engaged when they feel that they’re in a trusting and transparent environment. To foster this open environment for communicating feedback, your firm must first establish a culture that embraces feedback and a “get better” perspective. This cultural orientation is based around open and continued communication between team members and team leaders, and between team leaders and top-level leadership, to ensure that the necessary changes take place to promote growth.

People won’t feel comfortable providing their feedback if they don’t feel like it’s accepted or wanted. So before you can make changes that elicit feedback more effectively, your employees’ and your firm leaders’ mindsets will have to shift. Firms can achieve more open communication and effective feedback by promoting a team mindset that your firm’s people are open to and encouraging of feedback from all levels and that all feedback (whether it’s an idea or constructive criticism) should be solutions-oriented and shared from a positive perspective.

Once firm leaders adopt and communicate this mindset, there are many practices you can put into place to enhance your feedback culture. Consider adopting any of the following ideas:

  • Establish a continuous feedback system for each client engagement – make it a standard practice that each team leader for a client engagement meets with the team in advance of starting the engagement to discuss expectations and clarify any ambiguous areas. Then, have regular check-ins with the team or encourage team members to check in with the team leader as they have questions or concerns about the project. The team leader should assure their team members that they want their input and are open to their ideas or suggestions. Team members will be more likely to come to the team leader voluntarily when they want to discuss something if they feel like that person will listen.
  • Make coaching a two-way street – your up-and-comers most likely have a career advisor or mentor at your firm who is working with them to set and achieve individualized goals, identify areas for growth and development and maintain a career roadmap for progression. Encourage the mentors in your firm to ask their mentees for feedback in reverse. Professionals who are early in their careers want to learn and progress and many who hope to advance are eager for feedback that will point them to areas for development. Great leaders and coaches want to keep growing and getting better, too. Their subordinates don’t always feel comfortable supplying feedback, especially if it’s of a constructive nature, so it’s imperative that those leaders are openly asking for feedback. Assure your younger staff that you want their input and if there’s something that you can do better to support them in their work and learning, to please share it and that you are willing to listen.
  • Don’t make performance reviews, employee satisfaction surveys, or 360-degree reviews annual events – turn these big boulders into smaller stones by making them less formal and more frequent. Consider quarterly scheduled check-ins that allow private discussion between an employee and the manager to assess expectations versus performance, identify any course correction needed and discuss short-term goals that will help achieve that individual’s long-term goals. Holding frequent check-in meetings shifts performance management from a static orientation that assesses past performance across one year and what that person can do better over the next year to a dynamic orientation that stays up-to-date with the constant movement that takes place in today’s world and with that employee’s growth. You’re more likely to have an accurate perspective of an employee’s abilities, ideas and thoughts from frequently scheduled check-in meetings than from a formal annual review. The employee-manager relationship becomes flatter and is likely to foster more trust when the employee feels like they are frequently asked to share their opinions, career aspirations and overall development.

    You will also better gauge employee engagement and satisfaction by conducting shorter, more frequent surveys requesting feedback. Doing frequent surveys will allow your firm to focus on smaller program elements that you can change based on the results. There’s often a large amount of feedback on annual or bi-annual engagement surveys with numerous questions, which can cause overwhelm and end up bottlenecking any real change. Try conducting several surveys throughout the year with one or two questions about a specific topic you’re trying to assess.
  • Conduct strategic planning that includes all team members – this is a great way to get your employees motivated around the goals and success of the firm. The more they impact the firm’s vision, the more likely they are to rally around it and feel like being part of it. You might have frequent meetings with your partner team and your future partners, but consider planning one or two times a year when the entire staff is included and can input to your leadership team’s thoughts.
  • Establish an employee advisory board (EAB) – An EAB represents the voice of your people. The purpose of establishing this group of non-partner team members is to provide a place where employees can confidentially provide feedback, without going directly to leadership. The EAB brings important topics to the firm’s leaders around any challenges that people are expressing or changes they’d like to see made. Typically, the board members are voted on by the rest of the firm’s employees and the board will meet many times throughout the year, report their suggestions or findings to the leadership team and help generate solutions. Smart firms also use the EAB to provide feedback on program and policy changes or new initiatives before they are rolled out firm-wide, to ensure that the employee perspective is considered.

There are some important considerations that both the employee who provides feedback and the leader who listens to feedback should remember:

To the employee providing upward feedback – remember to provide your thoughts, ideas, solutions or suggestions for improvement from a hopeful perspective and not one that sounds like it stems from a complaint or problem. Think about the feedback you want to provide and how to frame it so that it is thought-out and purposeful. Deliver your feedback with tact, especially if your feedback is of a constructive nature, suggest a solution and frame it as an opportunity for figuring out how you can work together to solve a challenge so that there’s a better result next time.

To the leader receiving feedback – remember to listen to what the person is saying and acknowledge their perspective. Avoid defensive remarks or responses that try to validate your opinion or actions or defend something. If you cause the person to feel that their feedback is rejected or invalidated, they’re unlikely to offer any future feedback and will come to believe that the open culture is just a charade. Thank each person for sharing their thoughts and follow through with action against their ideas.

When your firm embraces a trust-filled, get-better culture and embraces feedback at all levels, you’re showing your employees that you are interested in their thoughts, ideas and solutions. You’ll enhance engagement (and retention) and your workplace will be and feel happier, too. What kinds of advice do you have for eliciting effective upward feedback? I welcome your comments!

Kind regards,
Brianna

 

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