When a clinic at which I worked advertised its annual staff survey, a coworker said, “They think they can trick us?” He quickly encouraged the rest of the team not to take the survey, expressing suspicions that anyone who offered negative feedback (especially about leadership) would be retaliated against. With our jobs perceived to be suddenly at stake, many on our team ignored the email invitation or only provided superficial, vague feedback.
Feedback is essential for change. There’s the saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”… but maybe something is broken, and we just haven’t been told so. Feedback offers the opportunity for growth and for redesigning processes that aren’t working as intended, but people must feel safe in order to provide honest feedback.
Trauma and Feedback Processes
Trauma and toxic stress can influence individuals’ willingness to provide feedback in feedback processes. Workplace culture marked by hostility, fear, or power imbalances can deter individuals from sharing feedback due to concerns about potential repercussions. This issue can be compounded by a history of leadership making big decisions that impact staff without staff input. Institutionalized racism can create an environment where underrepresented individuals feel unheard, or in which previous attempts to give feedback were dismissed, discouraging their engagement in feedback processes. Addressing factors that can lead to retraumatization and toxic stress in the workplace is essential to fostering an atmosphere of safety and inclusivity to encourage meaningful participation in feedback processes.
Considerations Prior to Requesting Feedback
Centering relationship: The nature and quality of relationships can affect the willingness, depth, and honesty with which feedback is provided. With trust comes safety: cultivation of a space that is open and willing to accept positive and negative feedback. Trust must also be considered at multiple layers, including whether respondents trust that the feedback will be responded to, valued, asked for again, and can be offered without retaliation. Distrust can bring about multiple concerns, including potential threats to a livelihood or access to resources, and even breaking friendly but fragile relationships. A history of trauma may also compound perceived risk, as many trauma survivors historically have not been validated in their experience; their self-advocacy efforts have been dismissed, and they may have previously experienced trauma by the system requesting feedback. Assessing and centering relationships before asking for feedback can better support safer communication paths, enhance feedback accuracy, and promote constructive dialogue that benefits personal growth, organizational development, and relationship building.
Past responses to feedback: How respondents predict their feedback will be responded to can impact whether they participate in a feedback process. This prediction can be informed by how the requester (e.g., the organization) historically responded to feedback. Perceived retaliation (e.g., a passive-aggressive email sent out to all staff after raised concerns), naturally, can incite anxiety over providing feedback. If individuals have given feedback in the past and saw no response, they might feel that giving feedback is a waste of time or that their feedback doesn’t matter. “No response” also characterizes a situation in which the organization reviewed the feedback, concluded no changes were necessary, and did not inform the individual of the outcome and why. Explaining why no action was taken might be discouraging to the individual, but it still indicates that the organization reviewed the feedback. A superficial response (e.g., a $5 gift card to address staff financial instability) can also be harmful and sow distrust among respondents and the organization. A meaningful response to feedback includes transparency, a cumulative review of feedback, and addressing root issues that can indicate that feedback is valued and needed.
Power Dynamics: It is important to assess whether an organization that requests feedback is ready to receive it. Providing feedback can be a vulnerable experience, especially in relation to something with more power and privilege. Placing individuals with lived experience in a situation in which their feedback is requested but disregarded can be harmful. For example, having a service recipient on an advisory board can appear inclusive, but if the organization is not receptive to their perspective, the individual can be pathologized, patronized, or only superficially included in decision-making.
Following are some practical examples for designing trauma informed feedback processes based on the Six Principles of Trauma Informed Care.
Safety: The organization offers anonymous feedback processes (e.g., online surveys) which respondents can fill out at the workplace or at home. A third-party organization de-identifies the feedback before giving it back to the organization.
Trustworthiness & Transparency: Leadership meets with teams monthly to learn about the strengths of each team. Workforce wellness is well-supported and includes activities staff can practice on and off the job. The organization explains why they are requesting feedback. After they review the feedback, they report their findings and next steps.
Peer Support: If an employee wants to give feedback or is requested to provide feedback, they can bring a peer or have the option to provide feedback in a group setting.
Collaboration & Mutuality: Staff are included in the cumulative feedback review process and decision-making. Participating staff are compensated for their time and expertise.
Empowerment & Choice: Staff can choose from various feedback processes (e.g., open door policy, anonymous survey, monthly advisory groups, etc.). Staff are encouraged to provide feedback and can be part of what happens with the feedback.
Culture, Historical, & Gender Sensitivity: Staff can provide feedback in affinity spaces. The organization actively seeks to advance and support diverse leadership.