Getting Good Input

young woman cupping her mouth to be better heard
Lisa Hochgraf Photo
Senior Editor

2 minutes

4 ways leaders can help employees speak up.

Learning is a continuous and iterative process of action and reflection. It is a cycle that requires honest input, Jim Detert told participants this week at CUES’ CEO Institute III at University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business.

“If you don’t solve the problem of [how to get] honest input, you can’t solve the problem of learning,” explained Detert, Ph.D., professor of business administration at Darden.

Why do people speak up or stay silent? Detert said the answer comes from a combination of the personalities involved, leadership, the organizational climate, and the structures and policies in place.

In evaluating whether to provide their input, people consider these three questions:

  1. Is it safe?
  2. Is it worthwhile?
  3. Do I care enough?

Detert outlined four strategies leaders can use to get honest employee feedback that can support organizational learning.

  1. Create a climate of high psychological safety. For example, celebrate learning behaviors by doing this like thanking someone for challenging the status quo. Also admit your own mistakes as a leader. Reward risk taking.
  2. Formalize processes that collect input from your team members. Detert favored more, shorter surveys about specific topics—like growth in a particular segment—rather than longer general surveys done annually. He also liked the idea of online forums focused on employees’ agendas (not leaders’ agendas) on which other members of the staff can comment and vote.
  3. Create an employee task force to interview key stakeholders, feed the unvarnished truth back to relevant decision makers, hold decision makers accountable for correct interpretation and action planning, and help them make the changes.
  4. Make changes to interpersonal behavior to solicit honest input. For example, choose “management by walking around” in which the leader goes to the employees’ turf to ask for feedback, over an “open door” policy, which requires employees to come to the leader. 

Attendees described ways the leaders of their credit unions were seeking honest feedback in support of organizational learning. These included: 

  • creating front-line interactions (for example, having the CEO work as teller for a time);
  • “stay” interviews instead of “exit” interview;
  • drop ins, in which managers would visit unannounced and ask for feedback;
  • recognition events that include time with senior leadership;
  • following up on feedback given in a 360-degree evaluation; and
  • celebrating changes with an email blast to all staff.

“If you’re going to build a system [for collecting employee ideas], include in the system a way to use the information you get,” Detert advised.

Lisa Hochgraf is CUES’ senior editor.

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