As a leader, you probably understand the value of having open conversations with your team about things that need improvement.  But in organizations under the strain of rapid change or faltering employee engagement, such talks can get subsumed by employees’ deep frustration about things that are not directly within your control.  When this happens, leaders often react in one of two ways: shutting down the conversation or letting it flow without constructive focus.  Neither is productive.  The former cuts off psychological safety and trust, and the latter further depletes the already weak level of engagement.   There are, however, strategies you can employ to keep your conversations with employees open, honest, and constructive.

Get That Thing Back On Track.

There are many ways a conversation can go off course when you would like to focus the team on ways to do things better. This article covers three common ways in which a well-intentioned feedback meeting can go sideways and simple questions to get them back on track.

1) The conversation moves away from the remit of your team and onto complex, long-term challenges, or with significant constraints beyond your control (eg: staffing issues that stem from shortages in the labor market).

While you do not want to dismiss these concerns, and you may indeed have an active role to play in influencing a change, most of these concerns are long-term plays and your team is hurting now.  Acknowledge the challenge and then ask:

What could we do to make things better right away?

You may consider options such as deprioritizing activities, simplifying workflows, or improving communication between teams.  Resist the temptation to focus on “window dressing” activities at times like these, at least at the exclusion of more substantive initiatives.  Initiatives such as luncheons, small reward programs, and wellness fairs help a healthy organization become happier.  But if your team is in a bit of a crisis, they will inevitably fall flat and further breach trust that is already fragile.

2) The conversation moves to general and broad complaints about executive/senior leadership decisions or communication. If your organization is struggling right now with poor communication or unpopular decisions, you will likely hear about it from your employees when you ask for their feedback, especially if your question is framed in general terms.  They have a right to feel frustrated when these shortcomings impact their daily work. And you have a responsibility to bring those concerns forward to the appropriate senior leaders.  But you also have a responsibility to your executive leader(s) to present clear and actionable feedback.  So, ask your team:

What can we add to make this comment actionable?

3) The great pile-on. In group discussions about problems within the organization, it can be easy for complaints to get piled on top of one another.  If you try to solve all of them, you will not solve any of them.  And once the conversation moves in this direction, it can be hard to tell which ideas have the most support from the whole team, and which ideas are the pet issues of one or two vocal people. Here, it’s important to be candid about your desire to be helpful but also practical.  So, ask:

Which of these problems are most worth solving?  Who in this group is personally committing to help solve them?

Let the group prioritize which issues would have the biggest impact if solved.  And if people are vocal about a problem but no one is willing to raise their hand to help solve it, then it’s fair to say that the team should focus on other things.

It is worth noting that the above strategies are only effective when a leader is genuinely willing to employ them, follow up, and be transparent about ideas they do not support. So be honest with yourself before seeking honest opinions from your staff.

Open dialog and constructive criticism from employees are healthy.  They help the organization improve and increase psychological safety and engagement when done well.  On the other hand, meandering venting sessions that have no action, and no plan for follow-up, on the other hand are harmful to engagement and create frustration.  These questions help keep the conversation open, honest, and constructive.

As a certified coach and facilitator, Wendy Hultmark is a career detangler and cultivator of high-functioning teams. Learn more at www.wendyhultmark.com.