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  • Writer's pictureScarlet Spark Team

Four Ways to Make it Safer for Staff to Share Feedback & Concerns

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

The animal protection movement faces a great deal of change and uncertainty. For organizations to thrive in this tumultuous environment, they need the fuel of frequent, high-quality feedback. Why? Because in a healthy feedback culture, people learn, improve, and innovate faster. They communicate and collaborate efficiently and adapt to surprises. They catch and fix problems early before they become a massive drain on the organization. But in too many companies, employees fear giving feedback or raising concerns — especially to people in positions of authority.

So, how can you get feedback flowing more swiftly across your teams? Here are six strategies to make feedback and concerns feel safer for staff to share:

1. Distribute power to reduce job risk.

One of the most foundational and overlooked questions leaders must ask is whether it is actually safe for employees to offer criticism. To answer this question, it’s important to look beyond attempts to create psychological safety, and examine whether there is structural safety in place.

For example:

  • Do leaders at your company have the power to make firing, hiring, promotion, or salary decisions all on their own?

  • Is it unclear how performance is evaluated and how termination decisions are made?

  • Do employees have little or no access to the individuals who evaluate the folks who evaluate them, such as executives and board members?

So long as there are few checks and balances in place on people’s power to make high-stakes decisions — especially those that directly impact employees — critiques will always feel scary to share and to receive. When you make implicit expectations and decision-criteria explicit and distribute decision-making power, staff members can stop looking out for their own safety and shift their focus to the needs of the organization.

To reduce job risk:

  • Clarify expectations and definitions of success for all roles.

  • Document a standardized process and criteria for firing, hiring, promotion, and salary decisions.

  • Ensure these decisions can never be made by one person. Instead use two decision-makers and a tie-breaker or assign “veto” power to everyone on a team.

  • Create a two-way assessment system, letting employees evaluate leaders.

  • Give all employees access to executives and board members through virtual office hours and contact information.

  • Publish and reiterate a no-retaliation policy.

2. Develop feedback skills & norms to reduce interpersonal risk.

Even when there are good systems in place to minimize job risk, feedback can still feel interpersonally risky. People often fear that they will harm a relationship by bringing up their concerns. This fear is heightened for employees who are new to the workplace and for teams that work cross-culturally. And within the animal protection world, people have a high degree of compassion, making it difficult for them to bring up anything that might hurt someone’s feelings in the short term (even if holding back feedback limits their success in the long term). Make critical conversations safer by helping develop your team’s feedback skills and norms.

To strengthen org-wide feedback skills:

  • Take workshops together

  • Watch videos or read a book and discuss

  • Practice giving feedback to build muscle memory and reduce the discomfort that comes from a simple lack of experience

  • Incorporate feedback training into onboarding

  • Refresh your skills together once a year

If you work in animal protection and want free support building your company’s feedback skills, contact our team:

And aside from building feedback skills, you can take some of the fear out of feedback by establishing a small number of feedback norms: agreed upon ways of working together. For example “go directly to the source (no second-hand feedback)” or “hold a retrospective at the end of every project.” The more explicit your team’s feedback norms are and the more practice they get, the safer and more enjoyable these conversations will start to feel.

3. Make giving feedback a rewarding experience.

While good systems for distributing power and plenty of practice will make it feel easier to bring up feedback, it’s also important to make it a positive experience. Once employees work up the courage to bring up a critique or flag a concern, they should leave the conversation saying: “Wow. That went well. I’m so glad I brought it up!” So how do you make giving feedback a rewarding experience? Commit to developing the following habits:

  • Express gratitude and appreciation for the feedback (even if it isn’t delivered as skillfully as you would like). For example: “I’m grateful you brought that up.”

  • Validate their feelings even if you don’t agree. For example: “That must have been really frustrating for you. I’m sorry you had that experience.”

  • Reiterate your understanding of their feedback. For example: “Just to make sure I understand, it sounds like your feedback is _______. Did I get that right?”

  • Ask clarifying questions if you don’t fully understand, being extra careful not to come across as defensive or dismissive. For example: “I want to make sure I’m able to act on your feedback. Would it be okay if I asked you some questions so I understand?”

  • Commit to a plan of action following the conversation, even if it’s something as small as thinking over the feedback to see how you might be able to apply it. For example: “Thank you again for raising this issue with me. It’s so helpful to see things from your perspective. Based on our conversation, here’s what I’m seeing as a next step: _______. What do you think?”

  • Follow up to demonstrate any changes you’ve made and ask for additional feedback. (This is one of the most important aspects of building trust and reinforcing a feedback culture and the step that most people skip!) For example: “I’ve been thinking about the feedback you gave me last week and trying to do _______ as a result. What do you think? Have you noticed a difference?”

  • Bonus: advertise the feedback you’ve received to others on your team – with consent from the person who gave it to you. Research shows that this kind of self-disclosure increases team-wide psychological safety, encouraging others to speak up (Coutifaris, Constantinos, and Grant, 2022). For example: “I recently got some helpful feedback about _______. I really appreciate it because _______. If anyone else notices that I do this or has other feedback to share, I am very eager to learn.”

4. Create multiple communication channels.

Last but not least, you can make feedback and concerns safer to share by giving people multiple channels and points of contact to do so. Some employees prefer a one-on-one conversation. Others might feel safer submitting their thoughts in writing. Some people will be happy to bring up issues to their manager, while others will feel more comfortable speaking to someone else.

Consider creating a directory of who employees should turn to for what, including a back-up person or form. We recommend defaulting to identified (non-anonymous) feedback, especially if you have good job safety systems in place) since identified feedback is best for learning and problem-solving. That said, it is a good practice to have at least one way for employees to provide anonymous feedback. For example, you can create a form anyone can fill out. Bonus: add the question: “If you’re willing to share, please let us know why you chose to provide this comment anonymously” so you can keep improving your organizational safety.

It takes time to build a sense of trust and safety. So, think of every feedback interaction as an opportunity to build (rather than break) that trust. It can seem like a slow process at first, but trust begets trust, and it soon blossoms into a culture of open, sincere, and consistently helpful communication. In the end, people, organizations, and animals all benefit.

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