Want Employees to Embrace Feedback? Improve Psychological Safety

By Emily Roner | Updated: 07 Sep, 2018

Feedback is one of the most powerful drivers of employee improvement. Without it, your team is blind to their weaknesses and limited in how much they can achieve. Research reports that employees who give and receive feedback regularly have greater role clarity and perform better than those who do not.

However, if given thoughtlessly, feedback can be as detrimental as it can be positive. According to a study in the Human Resource Development Quarterly, psychological safety affects how people perceive feedback and the quality of feedback they give others.

For employees to receive criticism and not take it as a personal attack, they must feel supported and understand that it’s given to help them improve. These actionable and straightforward strategies will enable you to create a culture where everyone embraces feedback.


Provide Frequent Feedback

A survey found that 69% of managers are uncomfortable communicating with employees. Their discomfort drives them to avoid having meaningful conversations with their subordinates until they’re forced to because they can no longer ignore someone's lackluster performance, they’re preparing for significant shifts in the company or other pressing matters. The problem with this cadence of communication is that it erodes employee’s trust in leaders because the majority of their interactions are superficial or stressful.

Integrating feedback into your company’s culture lessens people’s apprehension by normalizing it. Instead of bracing themselves for performance reviews where they receive a prolonged compilation of criticism in a single meeting, employees are better off when given small, unthreatening suggestions that they can act on immediately.

Another benefit of frequent feedback is it addresses issues when they’re relevant and fresh in your employee’s minds. Immediately pointing out makes employees less defensive than they would be if they received that same feedback a month later in a performance review.

Set Safe Communication Norms

To create psychological safety in an environment where feedback is given regularly, you have to communicate norms that prevent people from feeling like they’re always at risk of being verbally attacked.

Here are some safe communication norms to implement if don’t have them already:

  • No interrupting people until they are done speaking. Shy individuals will rarely share their ideas if they are cut off.
  • If you disagree with someone, you must state objective reasons and may not make personal attacks.
  • Ask clarifying questions about bold ideas before you criticize them.
  • Constructive criticism must focus on helping people achieve their goals.

These rules ensure that all communication is respectful and people feel supported, rather than threatened, by frequent feedback.

 Read more: 4 Compassionate Ways to Boost Employee Efficiency 


Encourage Feedback in All Directions

Except during 360 appraisals, people typically view feedback in a top-down approach. If your team operates this way, it dramatically limits your potential for improvement. Here’s why:

  • When the boss is the only person who gives feedback, it limits growth discussions to a single perspective and can lead some employees to fear their managers.
  • If your team doesn’t give you constructive criticism, you have no way to gauge if you're an effective leader or if you’re making preventable mistakes.
  • Employees can often see each other’s blind spots and benefit when their peers feel comfortable helping them overcome their weaknesses.

To encourage feedback in all directions, ask your team to give you feedback and reassure them there will be no repercussions. If your team doesn’t give you constructive criticism, set up a method for them to share opinions anonymously.

Additionally, instruct them to give one another feedback on deliverables and performances before speaking with you. To hold your team accountable, randomly asked them about the constructive criticism they’ve received from their peers recently.

Every instance of sharing feedback should be a two-way discussion where people are empowered to ask questions about the messages they receive and to offer constructive criticism in return.

 Read more: 6 Delegation Errors Leaders Make (And How to Fix Them)


Tailor Your Approach to Match Employee Personalities

There is no perfect one-size-fits-all approach for giving feedback. Your employee’s personalities affect how they perceive criticism and, if you want them to feel safe receiving it, you must consider their communication preferences. There are three ways to how each of your employees prefers to receive feedback:

  1. Ask them. Beware though that some employees may tell you they have no preferences because they don’t want you to treat them differently.
  2. Have them take a personality assessment such as the Big 5. Verify with your employees that their results accurately describe them. Use the assessment's resources to shape how you speak with them.
  3. Observe how they communicate with others and give them feedback in a similar way. For example, people who have direct communication styles tend to appreciate feedback that is concise and objective. On the flip side, people who speak euphemistically and connect with people in the office on a personal level tend to be more sensitive and respond best to a balance of positive and constructive comments.

Tailoring your approach to each individual’s personality is worth the additional effort because it puts people in the mindset to act on your feedback rather than having an emotional reaction to it.

By using these strategies to improve psychological safety, you create an environment where your team embrace’s feedback as a growth rather than fear it.


About the Author: Emily formerly led Prialto's content production and distribution team with a special passion for helping people realize success. Her work and collaborations have appeared in Entrepreneur, Inc. and the Observer among others.