Organizations must learn to incorporate constructive feedback from stakeholders to survive these turbulent economic times as the world grapples with pandemic-related disruptions. To meet the expectations of their stakeholders, leaders must ensure that they obtain regular feedback from them, since these people make decisions that determine the success of the organization.
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Securing constructive feedback is critical in helping you find out which of your decisions are working and which ones are not. Yet, many organizations struggle to cultivate effective engagement with their stakeholders due to a reluctance to incorporate – and act upon – feedback. This leads to the development of communication gaps between executives and the stakeholders.
To address these problems, leaders need to adopt best practices of getting constructive feedback from stakeholders. These practices are a product of insight obtained from both external research, and interviews I conducted with leaders at major organizations.
Why You Should Seek Stakeholder Constructive Feedback
Learning to incorporate constructive feedback is the key to building a successful relationship of trust with stakeholders. It provides you valuable insight into how they view and make decisions.
A few months ago, I met Alisha, my consulting firm’s client, who is the head of membership engagement at a professional manufacturing association. Alisha told me about how communication gaps between the organization’s executives and its key stakeholders – its members – had started to strain the relationship between them. Realizing the seriousness of the situation, the association wanted a neutral third party to conduct an in-depth investigation about the opinions of its members and the quality of outreach to them.
This is not an unusual situation. Indeed, I have seen numerous companies and nonprofits suffer from communication gaps due to a decline in the quality of outreach to their stakeholders. Eventually, when things hit a low point, the executives lose the trust of their stakeholders, which damages the organization’s culture, engagement, and reputation.
Alisha approached me for advice because she realized that to work effectively as head of membership engagement, she needed to learn the best ways to infer the truth about the stakeholders, their opinions and the quality of the organization’s outreach. She also wanted to help bridge these communication gaps, thus protecting the organization’s future.
Mental Blindspots Thwart Progress
Obtaining accurate feedback is incredibly important in stakeholder engagement to ensure that you have an accurate picture of what’s working and what’s not.
Unfortunately, we tend to feel – unjustifiably – that we know our stakeholders well enough to fully understand their requirements. Too often, we fail to seek their input and buy-in about essential matters.
This is a dangerous judgment error termed the false consensus effect, a blindspot that causes us to perceive others in our group as sharing our beliefs. This is one of the many kinds of dangerous judgment errors that behavioral economists and psychologists call cognitive biases.
These mental blindspots, which stem from our evolutionary background and the structure of our neural pathways, lead to poor strategic decision-making and planning. They affect all areas of our life, from health to politics and even shopping. Fortunately, by understanding these cognitive biases and taking research-based steps to address them, we can improve our engagement with our members.
Too often, the changes proposed by members make executives highly uncomfortable, with some leaders finding them contradictory to their own decisions. They fall for the status quo bias, a desire to maintain or get back to what they see as the appropriate situation and way of doing things.
It’s no surprise that learning to accept feedback is hard. We have a natural tendency to avoid taking information that doesn’t fit with our beliefs. This is another dangerous cognitive bias called the confirmation bias.
Learning to seek feedback proactively, and find out the truth about what stakeholders think about you, improves the organization’s long-standing relationship with its members. It also helps in resolving growing communication gaps by constantly seeking to improve the quality of outreach to them.
Learn to Love Constructive Feedback
When I met Alisha, I told her that as head of membership engagement, it’s vital that she must work to inculcate a new workplace culture fit for the future of work. The culture needs to encourage senior executives and team members alike to appreciate, respect, and seek out constructive feedback.
They should learn to see feedback, especially constructive feedback, as a favor that others do for them. Instead of becoming defensive and outright rejecting the proposals by others, they should thank others for their feedback and hear them out thoroughly. This approach also allows them to use such feedback to learn and effectively engage with stakeholders.
Our tendency to avoid information that doesn’t fit our beliefs due to confirmation bias is very dangerous for the health of our organizational cultures, missions, and bottom lines in the modern context. This behavior stems from our days in the savanna when it was much less important for us to figure out what was true than to align our perceptions about reality with those of our tribe.
We are the descendants of those early humans who remained faithful to this behavior to avoid going against the tribe. Naturally, many of us tend to feel very uncomfortable when we face information that goes against the beliefs of others in our tribe. Instead, many of us fall prey to the false consensus effect, which leads us to avoid trying to find out what they think due to fear of social rejection.
Leaders must understand that they should avoid taking a defensive or aggressive response to stakeholder feedback. After all, the feedback provides them with an excellent opportunity to learn and improve.
Constructive feedback allows leaders to identify the perceptions of the stakeholders. Understanding this helps them acknowledge that sometimes what the members are saying might not accurately describe reality. Their comments are simply a reflection of their perceptions, because they perceive everything you convey through their own filters.
I explained to Alisha that perceptions matter just as much as reality in stakeholder engagement. Thus, leaders must make it a goal to learn about these filters to engage with the stakeholders effectively. Naturally, getting constructive feedback is one of the best ways to achieve this goal.
How to Gain Effective Stakeholder Constructive Feedback
There are several ways to get constructive feedback from stakeholders. The easiest is to ask targeted questions, also called active feedback. Being specific about what you want to know ensures you get better feedback on your questions.
We can also use our social intelligence to gain passive feedback from the stakeholders by focusing on their behavior, what they’re saying, or refraining from saying or doing. Social intelligence refers to the strategic capacity to evaluate and influence other people’s emotions and relationships. Research in behavioral science and cognitive neuroscience shows that it is our emotions – not our thoughts – which determine what we decide and how we behave 90% of the time.
I shared the following methods with Alisha to help her receive quality feedback from stakeholders during their outreach assessment meeting.
1. Getting Active Feedback
- Ask how they feel about what you’re saying. This direct approach allows you to explore their emotions on the topic.
- Ask them what they think about what you’re saying. This gives you an insight into their beliefs about the topic.
- Ask how well their experience aligns with what you’re saying. Learning about their experiences and personal stories provides you with an insight into the influences behind their perceptions.
- Formulate other relevant questions specific to your topic. Each kind of question about feedback will help you get a glimpse of their filters.
Alisha decided to go ahead and arrange a meeting with the stakeholders. Initially, the meeting started with tension in the air. However, she soon felt a gradual lift in the mood by actively asking members the questions. The members could sense that she was sincerely interested in getting on the same page.
Gradually, the members started to express their opinions on recent decisions. Soon, Alisha was able to address their reservations by offering reasonable explanations for each point they made.
2. Getting Passive Feedback
While seeking active feedback is one way to gain insight into the perceptions and filters of the stakeholders, you can also learn much about them indirectly through passive feedback as well.
- Give them time and space to respond to what you’re saying. Offering sufficient room for response allows them to express themselves comfortably in front of you, giving you an understanding of their filters.
- Observe their communication with others about what you’re saying. This communication with others about your messages is an insight into their perceptions. Using it as a passive feedback tool helps you improve your engagement by addressing any points that conflict with your ideas.
- Observe comments on social media, blogs, and other public venues or social interactions. This offers you an understanding of their personalized views on topics and the filters by which they observe the world.
- Depending on your topic, there can be other passive feedback methods.
You should take notes on the feedback and adjust your actions accordingly. Over time this feedback will help you learn more about the filters of your stakeholders and improve your stakeholder engagement.
Three months after she consulted me, Alisha e-mailed me with great news. She told me how, by following the steps I suggested to improve stakeholder engagement, the association had noticed a significant improvement in their communication with their stakeholders. By bridging the communication gaps and learning the truth about what stakeholders think, the senior executives found it much easier to reach amicable compromises on points of contention.
Leaders often fall prey to cognitive biases that prevent them from incorporating feedback from stakeholders. The best way to ensure that you stay on the same page as your stakeholders is to receive constructive feedback from them regularly. You can achieve this by proactively applying best practices for seeking active and passive feedback. By doing so, you will be able to bridge communication gaps and improve stakeholder engagement.
Questions to Consider (please share your answers below)
How effective is your organization’s leadership at getting constructive feedback from stakeholders?
What steps will you take based on this article to seek out constructive feedback from stakeholders?
How would you assess the quality of your organization’s outreach to its stakeholders?
Image credits: Gustavo Fring
Bio: Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is a world-renowned thought leader in future-proofing, decision making, and cognitive bias risk management in the future of work. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-proofing consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, which specializes in helping forward-looking leaders avoid dangerous threats and missed opportunities. A best-selling author, he wrote Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019), The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships (New Harbinger, 2020), and Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage (Intentional Insights, 2021). His writing was translated into Chinese, Korean, German, Russian, Polish, French, and other languages. He was featured in over 550 articles and 450 interviews in prominent venues. These include Fortune, USA Today, Inc. Magazine, CBS News, Business Insider, Government Executive, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Time, Fast Company, and elsewhere. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training for mid-size and large organizations ranging from Aflac to Xerox. It also comes from over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist, including 7 as a professor at Ohio State University. You can contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, LinkedIn, Twitter @gleb_tsipursky, Instagram @dr_gleb_tsipursky, Medium @dr_gleb_tsipursky, and gain free access to his “Assessment on Dangerous Judgment Errors in the Workplace” and his “Wise Decision Maker Course” with 8 video-based modules at https://disasteravoidanceexperts.com/subscribe/.