‘Tis the season for giving. It’s that most wonderful time of year when we scramble to find the perfect gifts for family and friends.
We exchange baubles and sweaters, gift cards and gadgets.
And we (try to) act grateful when we receive gifts that aren’t exactly what we wanted.
Kind of like when we receive feedback we aren’t prepared for or willing to accept.
We’re also approaching the time of year for employee performance reviews (unless you work for an organization that’s thrown them out like last year’s fruitcake from Great Auntie Gertrude).
So many articles out there talk about the importance of employees graciously taking their managers’ feedback and thinking of it as a gift to help them grow.
But what about employees giving feedback to their managers, upper management or even senior leadership?
We all know about – and have probably participated in – annual employee surveys asking for feedback about our organizations and the people who run them. But how many out there have felt that they could be truly honest in their criticisms or that their feedback would result in any kind of meaningful change? I’m guessing not many.
Giving completely honest feedback to your superiors seldom changes anything other than perhaps their perception of you and your place within the organization.
And that’s where the problem lies. Leaders can dish out negative feedback, but they can’t take it. So we have things like anonymous employee surveys and exit interviews, but neither tool is as good as having a candid, human conversation that actually goes somewhere.
Leaders need to be open to the idea that their employees might actually be right and should take their feedback seriously as valuable, actionable information.
Unfortunately, most organizations don’t have such an egalitarian culture. Many managers still cling to the command and control style of leadership that grants them a false sense of total infallibility. This kind of mindset creates a culture in which employees feel that their feedback will fall on deaf ears. Or worse, any criticisms they relay will possibly jeopardize their jobs, which is why the only time employees give their most honest (and valuable) feedback is when they have nothing to lose by giving it. They don’t have the invisible axe hanging over their heads.
And that’s just what one retiring Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission employee did when he sent his exit interview responses to literally everyone in the organization.
So, in a nutshell, this employee completed his exit interview in the form of a survey and had some pretty blunt feedback on the current state of the organization. Rather than send his responses to Human Resources, he e-mailed them to everyone who works at the Turnpike Commission…including the chairman.
I would like to break down exactly why something like this happens. Also, I’d like to dissect the Turnpike Commission Chairman’s inappropriate, albeit predictable, response to the employee’s feedback, and use this as a teachable lesson for leaders who need a bit of humbling this holiday season.
Not long after the newly retired worker clicked the ‘Send’ button, the chairman replied with an e-mail of his own (also sent to every Turnpike employee) that read in part: “… I don’t believe we ever met, and after reading your Exit Questionnaire, I am grateful that we didn’t… Best of luck in your retirement.”
The chairman followed up on his response with comments to the media, refuting the points raised in the exit survey.
Before we break this down, let’s first address the commissioner’s immediate e-mail response. It was a dismissive, impulsive mistake of a message wrapped in fake well wishes. The commissioner labeled the employee’s exit interview as “disingenuous”, but I can’t think of anything less genuine than wishing someone well after telling him you’re glad the two of you never met. He was upset with the retiring worker’s feedback, and his decision to ‘Reply All’ with this response just made him look like an arrogant jerk in front of the remaining 2,000 employees.
So there’s that.
Next, we’ll review the commissioner’s comments to the media rebutting the employee’s feedback.
Again, the commissioner took issue with the fact that this employee felt it was necessary to e-mail his exit survey to every employee in the organization. He claimed there would have been a better way to deliver this feedback… Here’s the thing: Employees who take this kind of action are fed up and know full-well that delivering constructive feedback to management would, at best, be an effort in futility. This employee worked at the Turnpike Commission for 35 years, so he was well aware of the political land mines one might detonate via pissing off the wrong big wig simply by telling the truth. The commissioner’s stonewalling to the media clearly indicates what he would have done with this worker’s feedback if it were given in a different forum: nothing.
The commissioner also tried to shoot down the employee’s claims that senior leadership was “out of touch” while at the same time patting himself on the back for having such hands-on, communicative managers. Now, of course I don’t know the details of how the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is run. But if it’s like any other large organization, the brain trust in the upper echelon makes all kinds of decisions that negatively affect their workers because they are too far removed from the work that’s being done. They certainly don’t want to admit they’re wrong – the commissioner sure didn’t – so any dissent is likely to be squashed right quick.
I would be willing to bet the reason this employee sent his negative feedback to everybody working at the Turnpike Commission was because he knew it would have been ignored or even punished. The commissioner and his leadership team brought this on themselves, just as leaders in plenty of other organizations foster a culture where employees are afraid to speak truthfully about how they feel…until the moment they’re walking out the door.
Rather than letting his ego get out of control, here’s how the commissioner should have handled the situation:
Michael: “Hello, this is Michael.”
Commissioner Logan: “Hi, Michael. This is Sean Logan from the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. I was saddened to see you depart on such a sour note after giving so many years of service. I have to accept failure as a leader if you felt you had no other recourse than to leave the way you did. I want all of our employees to feel like they can voice their concerns, contribute their ideas, and make a difference here. This is on my shoulders, and I want to make it right. You were a manager at the PTC for quite a few years, so you definitely had your ear to the ground and know what’s causing the morale issues you mentioned. I’d like to take you out to lunch so you can fill me in, if that’s okay with you. How does next Tuesday at 1:00 sound?”
Michael: “Thanks very much for reaching out, Sean. I have to say I’m shocked to hear from you, but I’d love to meet and give you a better idea of how things can be improved. Next Tuesday sounds perfect. Now that I’m retired, I have quite a bit more free time on my hands!”
Commissioner Logan: “Great! I’ll have my assistant make sure it’s on my calendar. Looking forward to a good conversation.”
See that? That was classy, leaderly, and humble. Much better than the word vomit the commissioner decided to spew onto his keyboard and share with every single person working for him.
Following the conversation with Michael, the commissioner should send an e-mail to every employee explaining that he is going to ensure the culture at PTC allows for open and honest communication throughout all layers of the organization. He should convey the expectation that all managers will encourage employees to give feedback on how they can be better leaders, what isn’t working, or how their work experience could be improved. Finally, it should be explicitly stated that any manager who retaliates against an employee for telling the truth will face discipline up to and including termination.
That’s how serious you need to be about creating a culture where employees feel safe enough to give feedback and feel confident that their leaders will listen to them.
If you give your employees a reason to think that their feedback doesn’t matter, then you won’t just have a morale problem on your hands. One need only look at what happened with the Columbia space shuttle disaster back in 2003: a well-known and tragically grim example of what happens when employee feedback is not just rejected, but reprimanded. A NASA engineer tried to alert his superiors to safety issues with the shuttle, and their refusal to heed his warnings resulted in the deaths of all astronauts aboard the Columbia when it disintegrated upon reentry. This is an extreme scenario, but it illustrates that there can be serious consequences for disregarding employee feedback.
As I stated earlier, managers are fine with giving feedback to their employees. However, in all but the most progressive organizations, it’s an unspoken rule that telling your boss the truth will land you in hot water. If an employee raises a concern, his or her manager (or even Human Resources) will patronizingly say: “Perhaps you should do some reflection and ask yourself what you’re doing to contribute to the situation.” This management mind trick is the perfect tool to deflect blame and only leaves employees feeling unheard and defeated.
I’d like to take this opportunity to turn the above phrase around on leaders everywhere. Ask yourselves what YOU are doing to contribute to the problems in your organization. Better yet, ask your employees what you’re doing wrong.
Leaders, this holiday season, it’s time for you to swallow your pride along with a heaping slice of humble pie, and accept the gift of feedback from your employees. It might not be the gift you want, but you should nevertheless accept it with gratitude and humility.