Get the Feedback You Need By ‘Mentioning the Unmentionable’

A manager at a constructive conversations seminar I was giving shared a great example of what I believe is one of the most powerful communication devices for getting to heart of an issue.

This language pattern, which I call “Mentioning the Unmentionable,” makes it more likely someone with less power will bring up an issue.

Before I share what the manager said, and what happened because of it, let me first put this language pattern in context. Whenever one person has more power in a relationship, such as a boss or parent, there are things they do that annoy, frustrate, and even hurt those with less power, but because of the power difference the person with less power won’t confront them.

Think of your own experiences with this. Have you ever had a boss who:

  • Didn’t listen and even continued doing work as you talked?
  • Frequently interrupted you?
  • Asked or told you to work over the weekend, or some other “above and beyond the call of duty” task, and never bothered to thank you?
  • Spoke to you in a rude or overbearing way?
  • Micromanaged?

Think of how many of those situations happened without you saying something. Anyone who has been in the workplace for any length of time has a whole collection of these incidents.

We learn to “pick our battles” and “grin and bear it.”

The problem about this for managers is that each time these situations happen, the employee feels a little less excited about being there, a little less engaged, a little less motivated.

Already low engagement

Since Gallup’s research shows that only 33% of the workforce is engaged, and 51% are essentially going through the motions, not finding out if you’re doing things that lead to disengagement is costly.

But it isn’t just those thoughtless or rude behaviors that we need to find out about, it’s also the ineffective, counterproductive management practices we unknowingly engage in. Just like the person with bad breath doesn’t realize it until someone points it out, we don’t recognize what we’re doing that’s counterproductive unless we get feedback.

That’s where “Mentioning the Unmentionable” comes into play.

While the power differential is a major reason why employees don’t bring up certain issues, Mentioning the Unmentionable can be applied to any situation where you think the other person is uncomfortable being the one to raise the issue.

OK, enough of the context. Here’s what happened…

What Steve did

The management team I was working with was part of a company that was going through significant changes. We were talking about how to make it comfortable for their people to speak up about their concerns. One of the managers, Steve, shared this story:

After getting the results of their employee survey, he went to his team and let them know that there were some general perceptions employees had about their managers that he was concerned about, and wanted to check with them to see if he was doing anything that bothered them.

Silence.

Rather than offer an awkward, “Ahh. OK, well if there is anything, let me know” and scurrying on to the next subject, he “Mentioned the Unmentionable.”

He said, “Well let me ask you this. One of the areas mentioned in the survey was that employees felt like there was too much micromanaging. Do you ever feel like I get too involved in your projects?”

Heads started to nod. Then people started talking.

By asking them about this specific issue, rather than just leaving it as a generic “Is there anything I’m doing that bugs you?” question, he sent the message: “It’s OK to talk about this.”

Article Continues Below

Let them know “It’s OK to talk about this”

By putting on the table a potentially touchy topic, you make it clear that topic is up for discussion.

You might think, “I’m not some big scary person. Why would they be afraid to bring up something to me?”

We often forget that while we might not feel like we seem imposing or intimidating, if our position carries power, that has an effect on most people in terms of what they will — and won’t — share with us. Mentioning the Unmentionable helps reduce their reluctance because it let’s them know you’re open to talking about the issue you just “mentioned.”

Not only does this give you useful information, it also strengthens your relationship because it communicates, “I care about how I affect you. I don’t think that just because I’m the boss I get to act any way I want and you just have to learn how to deal with me.”

What if you disagree with their perception?

Now, just because the other person shares their point of view or their feelings about the issue, doesn’t mean that your response is to change based on their feedback. While that might be the appropriate response, your next move might be to explain more clearly your intention, or the reasoning behind your actions.

So for instance, if you notice the expression on an employee’s face looks hurt after you give her some negative feedback, and you ask her if she feels your feedback is unfair or inaccurate, and she says “Yes, I do” that doesn’t mean you’re supposed to say, “OK, I take it back.”

Obviously your next move is to get her to talk about her perspective. Out of this discussion, you might find yourself changing your perspective or you might realize you need to do a better job explaining your assessment.

Regardless of what comes out of the conversation, the point is, without Mentioning the Unmentionable you never get to discuss the issue, and so it doesn’t get resolved.

With Mentioning the Unmentionable, you get to the heart of an issue and open the door to resolution and moving on.

Like with Steve, by Mentioning the Unmentionable, you can gain valuable feedback from your employees about how you can be an even better manager.

The result?

A more motivated, engaged, and productive team.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 100 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.

Topics