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Can Employees Really Give Managers Crucial Feedback Without Reprisal?

Employees are a sort of “case study” for a company. They can spread positive news about the business to their outer networks, provide valuable brand awareness and ultimately, keep the company honest in terms of leadership. Plenty of leaders encourage employees to speak up, give feedback, pitch new ideas or be a watchdog for unethical behavior. But can employees actually take the encouragement to voice their opinion at face value or is it all for show?

According to research done by Ethan Burris, “Managers view employees who engage in more challenging forms of voice as worse performers and endorse their ideas less than those who engage in supportive forms of voice.” In layman’s terms, the more you challenge authority, the less likely you will be perceived positively by your supervisor.

In ongoing research that is still being conducted by Harvard Business Review researchers, evidence has been found that supervisor retaliation can go beyond the boundaries of just having a negative attitude toward an employee that speaks against them in any sort of negative way. In their recent study, researchers examined the question of whether these employees who utilize their right of encouraged constructive criticism are confronted with more abusive leadership instead of positive response.

The researchers conducted a web-based survey asking employees to invite a coworker familiar with their work to participate as well. The employees then answers questions about how negative or “abusive” their managers were, while the coworkers answered questions about how much “constructive resistance” the employees showed toward that supervisor.

“Our analyses (while controlling for differences in education and industry) revealed that the more that employees were perceived by coworkers to show constructive resistance towards their supervisors, the more likely the employees were to rate their supervisors on a validated scale as showing abusive behavior towards them. Examples of abusive behavior included asking whether their supervisor ridiculed them, were rude, invaded their privacy, or gave them the silent treatment,” said David De Cremer, one of the four researchers conducting the study.

Through this ongoing research, the team found some key takeaways for both managers and employees to use while approaching the sensitive topic of feedback:

Managers:

Actively embrace constructive criticism. Make it known that are you are good on your word of accepting feedback on your performance. Lack of communication can cause issues to blow out of proportion, often leading to tense conversations that could result in negative backlash.

Second, keep your emotions in check. While this is difficult to do if you are feeling threatened, this outside perspective on your performance could really be eye opening, but it is important also to ensure your point of view is interjected as well. Just keep the negativity in check.

Last, be cognizant of cultural differences. According to the research team, “In some cultures, speaking directly is the norm; in others, people will say nothing but still mean something. In some cultures, for example, subordinates may not challenge leaders openly but may still disagree with you. In others, a blunt critique may just be the start of a good discussion.”

Employees:

First, you need to build trust by being a top performer at your job. In any other circumstance to gain authority on a subject or topic, you would be well researched and rehearsed before speaking, right? Earning your boss’s trust works the same way. If you are an efficient employee who is constantly looking for ways to improve yourself and your team, your boss is going to trust your insights on their performance as well.

If feedback is not exchanged as early as possible, tensions can rise, resulting in abusive responses from leadership. Be confident in your abilities to constructively give criticism where it is due. And finally, remain in control of your emotions as well. As professionals, both managers and employees should take criticism as a learning opportunity, not one that divides teams.

Communication is good for ALL aspects of business, especially when it comes to building trust and establishing loyalty on a team. Managers, regardless of your seniority, can learn from their subordinates; and in turn, employees can learn from their managers on how to candidly and appropriately address criticism without reprisal.

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