As a Christian leader, you and your leadership team are working hard to create a healthy workplace environment that brings out the best in your staff and fulfills your God-given mission. When you work with Best Christian Workplaces on an Employee Engagement Survey or a Leadership 360 Review, it is possible to be surprised at some of the feedback you receive from your staff. The perceptions of your staff might not match what you as a leader think is true about your organization. As you consider your employees’ feedback, you have a choice in how to respond. You can choose to be curious about why your employees have the experiences and perceptions that they share, or you can respond defensively.
Choosing Your Response
Defensive responses are part of human brokenness. Adam and Eve got defensive when God asked about eating the fruit in the garden. And the pattern has continued throughout human history. As leaders who are redeemed by faith in Jesus and deepening in our faith journey, we are still learning and growing in our responses. We may still struggle with getting defensive at times about the critical feedback we receive. It’s a lifelong journey.
Maybe you recognize some of these common responses that people give to negative feedback they receive—not just in a workplace setting, but even with family and friends:
My situation is unique—so comparing me to norms isn’t fair or relevant.
I used to be like that, but I recently changed.
People don’t understand the pressures I face.
The strengths you identified are correct, but not my weaknesses.
The people who gave me negative feedback just don’t like me.
Any of these common reactions to negative feedback may contain a sliver of truth. But responding in a defensive way to feedback we don't like will stunt our ability to keep learning and growing. This is true in our personal relationships and our leadership roles.
In my years as an organizational development consultant and leadership coach, I have heard every one of these responses to feedback—and more. A defensive response is often just a protective response; people want to protect themselves and their organization from a perceived threat. And receiving negative feedback can feel threatening.
The fear of receiving negative news is what keeps many people from getting regular checkups with their dentist or doctor—or from getting input from their employees. It’s more comfortable in the moment to not ask questions to find out if you have gum disease or high blood pressure—or disengaged employees. Since the solutions aren’t always easy, we often come up with reasons to avoid getting feedback about our physical or workplace health.
If and when we finally receive feedback and it turns out to include some negative information, we may try to rationalize why the feedback is wrong or irrelevant to us and our unique situation.
Feedback invites the possibility of change, and humans have some predictable patterns related to change. Social science research shows that the response to negative input or change starts with immobilization, and then can move at any speed through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and testing—hopefully finally ending with acceptance of the situation and how one can best respond to it.
So, when consultants at Best Christian Workplaces at times hear organizational leaders push back on or minimize the feedback they receive on an employee engagement survey, we understand where their response may be coming from.
Yes, your organization is unique. Every organization is. Yes, your employees probably don’t understand all of the pressures and challenges that your organization and your leaders face. Yes, it’s possible that some of your staff aren’t your biggest fans. And yes, it can be frustrating to receive feedback you don’t like or didn’t expect. But the results of an organization’s Employee Engagement Survey or a Leadership 360 Review represent the actual thoughts, feelings, and perceptions that your staff have about the workplace culture of your organization or your own leadership. Their perceptions aren’t wrong just because they are different than yours. Our research clearly shows that every item on our engagement survey impacts the level of energy, excitement, passion, and commitment that your employees bring to work every day. Indeed, perceptions matter.
The Gift of Feedback
As you look at data particular to your organization, you can choose how to respond. What if you decide to pause your defensive responses and adopt a posture of curiosity? What if you choose to think of open and honest feedback from your staff as a gift that can have a positive impact on your organization?
It takes courage to ask for feedback. Once you receive that gift, then it takes humility to consider the feedback rather than focusing on how to minimize its validity. A defensive response only serves to diminish the potential value and impact of the feedback.
When you choose to open yourself to the gift of feedback, then you have tools and information that can improve your organization and your own experience of leadership. Feedback can help you move toward inspirational leadership, healthy communication, fantastic teams, sustainable strategy, and the other Flourish factors that are characteristics of a thriving workplace culture. Choosing a positive, appreciative, and curious perspective of feedback allows you to maximize the value of employee feedback which leads to flourishing people, teams, and organizations.