In the words of Donald Rumsfeld:
“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
Putting aside the source of these comments, it is really the ‘unknown unknowns’ that have the potential to destroy a work culture.
At Worklogic we conduct hundreds of investigations into workplace complaints every year. When conducting an investigation, it often becomes obvious that the complaint at the centre of the investigation has been festering for a while.
By the time a formal complaint is made, the relationship between the complainant and respondent, and sometimes with the rest of the team, is often very damaged. Indeed, in “Aftermath or Afterglow”, Worklogic’s research on the fallout from workplace investigations in the 12 months after the investigations was completed, 21% of organisations reported the complainant in the matter resigned and 16% reported that the respondent resigned after the investigation.
Seeking out the “Unknown Unknowns”
Often at some point in the history of the conflict that led to investigation, an incident occurred and was not dealt with well. In all likelihood, the manager didn’t even know about this incident, or if they did, they didn’t understand how serious it was. This ‘unknown unknown’ was able to fester and the relationship between the complainant and respondent went downhill rapidly from there. By the time a formal complaint is made, the ability to understand and fix the instigating issue is often lost, crowded out by a cycle of negative behaviour and perceptions.
The solution to break the cycle of complaint is for management to get hold of the information that gives rise to a complaint as early as possible and to take action on the information.
Be Open to Bad News
People love to give you the good news about the way you are managing your staff and all managers love to hear that they are doing a good job. However, constructive criticism, that is feedback that helps you understand how you can improve, involves embracing the negative as well as the positive.
It sounds counter-intuitive but getting bad news fast is the best way to feed a healthy culture and to get any problems back on track as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Constructive feedback is like gold to an organisation seeking to build a culture of improvement. It’s not always easy to give constructive feedback though, so to get to the bad news, if there is bad news, you’ll need to dig a little.
The best way to get the feedback that you need at the time when you can do something about it is to set up systems of encouraging and collecting comments from staff, creating a loop of feedback and improvement.
Make Feedback an Everyday Part of your Culture
Seeking feedback from staff about how to do things better should not be limited to a once a year People and Culture Survey. You need to provide regular opportunities for employees to have their say. You can do this in formal ways and in informal ways such as including space for feedback or questions at the end of meetings, asking for feedback over email or (really!) having an open-door policy.
An effective way of encouraging a feedback rich culture is for senior managers to model taking on feedback to improve. For example they could tell stories of taking on board feedback and how this made their work better. Regular “learnings” sessions at team meetings encourage open communication and improvement.
Ask the Right Questions
Simply having the modern day equivalent of a ‘suggestions box’ is not going to get you that really valuable constructive feedback that you need. Similarly asking things like “Does anyone have any questions” or “Does anyone have any feedback for me?” might get you the warm fuzzies from those people who say you are doing great, but it is unlikely to get you the valuable less positive feedback that will help you grow as a manager or as an organisation. Asking more specific questions, for example “What did you think about the content of the Manager Training? Did it cover the right material? Are there other subjects you’d like to see covered?” will get you better feedback than “What did you think of the Manager Training?”
Specifically asking how to improve can also get you the feedback that you need. In their book Thanks for the Feedback, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen suggest a powerful feedback seeking question is “Name one thing” “Name one thing you’d improve about the Manager Training” or “Name one thing that gets in your way at work”.
Recognise that Giving Feedback is Tough
Feedback is not always easy to give, and it is important for managers to acknowledge the courage involved in bringing negative feedback to their attention. Find ways to value feedback and to thank those employees who think highly enough of you to tell you their version of the truth.
When you do take on board the feedback, a really powerful way to reinforce a feedback rich culture is to reflect the change that comes about because of the feedback back to the giver and if appropriate, the broader team.
Provide Multiple Ways to Receive Feedback
There are a number of ways an organisation can systematise seeking feedback. People and Cultures Surveys, Grievance Procedures, Pulse Checks and Workplace Reviews are all ways that seek comment from employees and all have a place. It is important to have a multi-track feedback system to cover off all of the ways that people seek to give feedback.
The more difficult the feedback is to give, the more the organisation needs to hear it. While some employees will be comfortable providing feedback in person, some will be too fearful of the implications for their relationships at work or even the security of their employment. Providing a secure reporting line where complaints are able to be made anonymously and are handled by an independent organisation can be an excellent way to enable to staff to feel safe in providing their feedback.
Allowing for anonymous reporting which is fed back to authorised officers also allows you to cover off your obligations under the Whistleblower Legislation.
Whistleblower Reporting Service
Worklogic’s Independent Whistleblower Reporting Service ensures organisations are made aware of, and can address, issues that that they may not otherwise know about until it is too late. Subscribing to this independent service demonstrates transparency and the organisation’s commitment to best practice in employee engagement and occupational health and safety.
Subscribers are often concerned that giving employees an option of reporting to an independent hotline or website will open the floodgates to a wave of complaints. Our experience is that subscribing to the Whistleblower Reporting Service promotes a feedback rich culture as it increases overall employee trust and confidence in the organisation’s ability to receive constructive feedback, and actually leads to greater engagement with other forms of gathering feedback from staff, such as discussions with collegues or HR. The evidence is that when organisations subscribe to the Whistleblower Reporting Service, the complaints do not come in a flood but in a trickle – a trickle of valuable feedback which allows an organisation to have peace of mind that if an unknown unknown is threatening their culture or causing a risk to their business they have a chance to find out in time!
About Jodie Fox
Jodie Fox is passionate about helping people and organisations manage workplace conflict in a productive way. She specialises in workplace investigations, workplace reviews and mediations to address and resolve complaints and foster a positive workplace culture. An experienced employment lawyer, she works with clients from a diverse range of industries providing pragmatic and strategic advice. She is a knowledgeable and engaging writer and speaker.
Please contact Jodie for an obligation free consultation via email or call (03) 9981 6558.