Monday, October 22, 2012

Manager Mondays: If You Don't Ask For Feedback...

Welcome to Manager Mondays, where the topic always revolves around effective workforce messaging. Today, it's about why it's important to make sure you have more than one employee feedback loop in place.

"They don't give us a way to tell them how it's going. Then, when we talk among ourselves about how bad things are, they question our loyalty."

This was the way one of my friends -- I'll call him Tom -- recently summarized conditions at his workplace.  He was disgusted by the fact that a new process had been launched a few weeks ago, and not one boss had asked anyone for feedback about it.  The people on the shop floor were stressed and anxious about the changes.  Problems were popping up with increasing frequency, but they had to deal with them in a vacuum.  There was no way for the front-line workers to report the issues to the people in the back office.   Their immediate manager was too busy coping himself to listen to their warnings.  When they did get through to him, he seemed reluctant to comment about the problems.  So Tom and his co-workers muddled along, inventing their own solutions.

Do similar scenarios ever occur in your workplace?

If your organization lacks forums for employee feedback, you could be one step away from losing your top talent.  Or maybe you already are.   

Tom wants to do his job well.  The new process is presenting him with a lot more constraints for executing his responsibilities.  He is frustrated by those constraints, but he lacks resources to deal with them, and there is no way to pull in the big guns and address them.

Tom thinks his manager is afraid that if he brings bad news about the new process to the executives who authorized it, he'll look disloyal.  So the manager "encourages" his team to make the best of it, then pastes a smile on his face when he goes into the weekly management meeting. Tom and his co-workers know they won't get traction from talking to their boss, so they talk among themselves instead, and the tone is decidedly negative.

The especially sad part about my friend Tom's story is that he's one of the best employees at that company.   He has considerable talent, he's consistently reliable, he's a team player, and he contributes a lot of value toward the bottom line.  On a social level, Tom is normally a very positive person, so when he's looking down, it's a morale-buster for everyone else.  But at Tom's place of business, sadness itself is seen as subversive, so Tom is already being singled out as a troublemaker.

It will come as no surprise to learn that Tom is thinking seriously of quitting.  He knows he has valuable skills, and he feels that they are being short-circuited. He wants to be able to help his company grow, and though he does see his bosses' unapproachable attitude as a personal affront to his dignity, he is more concerned that it's a roadblock to productivity.

Once again, my motto holds true:

Healthy organizations attract healthy people; 
Unhealthy organizations attract unhealthy people.

Tom is not being too sensitive.  He's being insightful.  Employees who care about the mission are often the first ones who abandon the company when their opinions are stonewalled.  And to tell you the truth, companies that shut out employee feedback don't deserve employees like Tom.  On the other hand, employees who don't mind perpetuating mediocrity will put up with bosses who don't listen to them, because they weren't about to start talking anyway.  But are those the employees that any company wants to hold onto?

Address Your Fear Of Feedback 

This week, do a systems check of your feedback forums.  Ask yourself: if I worked for me, would I feel free to give feedback to me?  Hold yourself accountable if the answer is anything other than a solid "Sure!"

If you find that you need to set up more avenues for employee feedback, here are a couple of ideas I recommend:

1.  Hold Instant Opinion Polls at team meetings.   Give everyone three colored index cards:  green, yellow and red.  Explain that green means "I think it's great,"  red means "I think it's not good," and Yellow means "It's complicated."  You will mention a certain company-related topic, and  employees will have three seconds to think.   Then you will call "Vote!" and everyone has to hold up the card that fits their basic feeling about the topic. 

Try this game first with a topic that everyone likes, such as a popular company perk (the employee discount at retail enterprises, for example).  Then get into more loaded territory.  When you get a show of cards that indicates mixed opinions about a topic, stop and invite people to explain why they feel the way they do.  Handle the resulting discussion with respect and neutrality.  Give everyone a chance to articulate their feelings.  

2.  Hand out Gripe Amnesty Tickets.  Tell your team that they can each come to you with a gripe that they otherwise might not think about mentioning because it's too trivial, too specialized, or whatever.  Say that they can "redeem" their ticket any time within the next month.  Explain that one of your goals for 2013 is to make it easier for people to do their jobs by helping them overcome their pet peeves, and this is a chance for them to help you fulfill your goal. 

3.  Pass out a short Survey Of The Week.  On random Mondays, stick a survey on everyone's desk or in their mailbox.  It should contain no more than three of four questions about a particular topic.  Again, start with a harmless topic, such as "my new haircut."  Keep the surveys anonymous, and keep the answers simple -- don't ask for essays!  Include instructions about how to fill it out, indicate the location of the drop box where employees can put their completed ones, and specify the Friday deadline.  Promise a group reward on the following Monday if everyone participates, such as a drawing for a gift card.  

4.  Hold an "Ask The Expert"  Q & A conference call.  If you have a remote workforce, this is a good way to include them on the feedback loop, especially in the aftermath of any significant new changes.  The objective of the call would be to allow everyone to ask any questions they have about the new policy, procedure, initiative, etc.  Have one of your company Subject Matter Experts on the line to answer questions -- for instance, the engineer who designed the new product, or the Finance Department person who knows the rationale behind the new banking procedures.  As you monitor the call, jot down any recurring themes or issues that staff brings up -- then use the last ten minutes to turn the tables and ask the callers a few survey-type questions about how things are going.  (This is a great way to not only elicit feedback but also increase staff's buy-in for the change, assuming that the "Expert" is credible and articulate.)

There are many other ways to gather feedback, but these four methods have the following advantages:
  • Friendly and fun.  If fear is in the air, or if resentment is rumbling underground, you need to make sure feedback-gathering feels as harmless as possible.    
  • Topic-specific.  Employees need to know exactly what they're being asked about.   
  • Time-sensitive.  The feedback must be received and processed within a quick time-frame.  At the rate things change at the job, a lag time of more than a week means that comments will likely be outdated by the time they're sorted.
  • Stigma-free.  If people can voice how they feel without worrying about the consequences to their reputation, they will usually do so.

However you may choose to gather feedback, make sure it's a regular activity, and make sure that there are always multiple ways for employees to have their voices be heard.

The main objective of feedback-gathering is to sustain an open workplace communications culture where people feel neither stilted or stifled.  I wouldn't want to give you the impression that you will ever get any especially-juicy revelations from the feedback-gathering process, although you very well may.  You might get good ideas for process improvement; you might get early warnings about bad trends; and you might also get a bunch of crackpot comments from people who have their own pet soapbox issues and will use any means available to push them.  That's all part of the drill.  The truth is, you're staging feedback-gathering to give more than to get.  And the commodity you are giving is reassurance: that employees matter, that their perceptions are valued, and that their struggles deserve to be recognized and resolved.

Don't force your staff to walk around with pasted smiles on their faces.  If you do, some of those employees will soon walk somewhere else --  out the door.  And they will be the ones you least want to lose.

By the way, notice that I don't include the time-honored "Suggestion Box" as one of my feedback-gathering options.  That's because no one I've ever met has found a way to make employee suggestion boxes actually work!  Are you the exception? Then leave a comment here, please, and enlighten the rest of us!

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