Dealing with Feedback in a System

This edition of Mentor Online is original material by Rev. George Brookover.

Learning how to deal with feedback (opinions, criticism or praise) is vital for a voluntary organization like a church or other not-for-profit. An instrument like this one can be especially helpful in assisting paid and volunteer leadership to deal with all comments in an appropriate and healthful manner. Coping with feedback in an appropriate manner can be a means for building a healthful environment. If not dealt with in a structured and predictable way, feedback, when denied or ignored, can become a destructive and draining force. This instrument is intended to assist leaders with management of their responses and oversight for the communication flow that can produce better results for the system and its constituents. Leaders in organizations should work to model the intent of the following policy and practice.

1. All constituents are affirmed in their right to express their opinions about the vision, mission, programs and other dynamics of the life of the organization, including the personnel.

2. All employed and volunteer leaders in organizations need to remember that an opinion expressed by a participant in the life of the organization is just that–an opinion. And it is also worth noting that some individuals make a practice of commenting on everything. But even a chronic complainer deserves to be listened to in an effort to detect the kernel of truth or the merit of their observation or need.

3. Most not-for-profit organizations operate with a “direct democracy” form of governance, which allows the sharing of opinions directly with the employed or elected and appointed leaders in the system. And constituents are invited and encouraged to attend meetings related to the organization’s system.

4. When there is an occasion for a supporting member of the organization to share feedback (an opinion, concern, question or complaint) with someone in the leadership team (staff, elected or appointed members) the following response is recommended used. “Thank you for sharing this concern with me and for your interest in the organization. What would you like for me to do with what you have just shared with me?”

  • If the response is “Oh…nothing. I only thought you ought to know that I (we, they) are upset about what is (not) going on….” Then the leader receiving the information should very intentionally indicate that nothing is going to be done with the comment; and, that the comment will not be delivered into the system’s formal and informal network. (This is a very important response to the person unwilling to proceed in one of the following ways. It prohibits the development of the impression that just sharing an opinion will produce a response that is acceptable to the petitioner.)
  • If the response is that an outcome is expected by sharing the comment…then the leader will provide guidance for the constituent about how to communicate with the system.

5a. Matters concerning functional issues (programs, facilities or organizational structure)
If the issue or concern is related to the “system,” the person sharing the matter should be invited and encouraged to bring the information or opinion to the next meeting of the group directly responsible.
5b. Matters related to relational (interpersonal) issues (staff, officers or other volunteers)
If the issue or concern is related to personnel or other interpersonal matters the person sharing the matter should be invited and encouraged to confer with the appropriate person, the board of directors, or a designated committee.
6. If the person sharing the concern does not desire to make an appearance or communicate with the appropriate group within the organization’s system, the leader should ask for permission to use their name in reporting the issue. If permission is not granted, then the leader will say, “I am sorry but I will not be able to report or share your concern since we do not deal with anonymous comments.” If permission to use the petitioner’s name is granted, the leader will share information with the appropriate person or group in the system with the person’s name included in the report.
7. The minutes of the board, committee or group receiving a member concern will make a note of the topic in the minutes of the meeting(s) at which it is discussed. Additionally, if an official action is deemed appropriate or necessary the person who has shared the concern should be informed of the decision made with regard to the issue.
8.  The organization should be attentive to feedback (positive and negative) if for no other reason than to detect the mild-to-severe nature of resistance, opposition or antagonism. Being attentive is not the same thing as being reactive. A critical comment does not always mean that there is a need for an adjustment in policy or practices.

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Retired Lutheran (ELCA) clergyperson. Founder & owner of Brookover Leadership Development & Consulting, Inc. (1967)

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