Company leaders need a mindset change when it comes to employee feedback.
The problem is two-fold: Organizations aren’t going about soliciting employee feedback the right way, and they’re also not valuing it in the way they should be.
Organizations typically only solicit employee feedback through relatively passive methods like suggestion boxes and once-a-year pulse surveys. The problem is that suggestion box recommendations are hard to follow up on, and pulse surveys tend to only ask general questions that don’t explore the nuances of the problems in the workplace.
Many organizations also don’t see the value in soliciting feedback, believing it to be more of a hindrance than something that can radically improve their workplace. In our report on the “State of Employee Feedback,” we found that 36% of employees either don’t have a feedback program or aren’t aware of one at their company. Additionally, 37% don’t have an open-door policy at their workplace, they don’t know about one, or work has a policy that’s not being upheld. Fast Company found similar numbers, where upwards of 49% of employees report that they are not regularly asked for their ideas or opinions at work.
This is why organizations need a mindset shift around employee feedback — or else they may lose their employees, and their reputation, to issues that could have easily been prevented.
The Challenges to Gathering Feedback
The goal is to gather authentic, detailed, and actionable feedback around employees’ experiences in the workplace. But challenges often arise in how to gather it, how to take action on it, and how to make sure you’re asking the right questions to get it. Challenges can also be found in the “we’ve always done it this way” mindset around the role HR plays in employee feedback initiatives as well.
HR has historically had limited budgets relative to other departments, and despite the fact that HR has a hand in recruiting, hiring, and training the talent that propels the company forward, they haven’t been seen as a revenue-driving business unit. Employee feedback programs often get pushed to the side by an already stretched-thin team.
In terms of soliciting and gathering authentic feedback from employees, HR teams are often afraid of anonymous feedback because they see it as “not actionable.” Additionally, HR teams are concerned that by allowing employees to share anonymous feedback, it will flood an already busy department with every piece of feedback imaginable.
But this isn’t the right approach to gathering authentic employee feedback.
The Importance of Authentic Feedback
When I talk about the importance of authentic feedback, I don’t mean it as the opposite of fake feedback. I mean it as the opposite of no feedback. Because the truth is that many employees stay silent for fear of retaliation, or that they won’t be considered a team player, that they will be shamed for sharing, or their job duties will be taken away — or that they’ll even lose their job. Many stay silent because it’s too big of a risk. Many stay silent because they tried speaking up in the past and were told they were lying, or nothing was done about it. (Especially when you have reports like this one from Harvard Business Review that tells how 31 women who reported issues of harassment either weren’t believed or were told to keep silent about it.)
So we can’t just ignore the lack of authentic feedback, or say it’s too hard to collect, or too challenging to deal with, or that it takes too much time and effort. This sends the message to employees that their voices are too bothersome, are too intrusive, or don’t matter enough to pay attention to — and this is the message that keeps people silent. So how do we go about fixing this issue?
Shifting the Mindset
In order to address these challenges, organizations need to realize that they can’t simply ignore the issues anymore, or force out employees who raise red flags in order to cover things up. “Celebrate the agitation instead of demonizing the people bringing issues forward,” writes Nilofer Merchant in the Harvard Business Review. “Leadership, after all, is about solving problems. If people aren’t bringing you problems, consider why not. Maybe it’s because they stop believing that you care or don’t believe that you want their best ideas; either of which is a problem.”
Therefore, the first step is recognizing the value of employee feedback, as well as the value of the HR department. HR helps shape the success of the workplace, and indeed the future of the company, as they have a hand in recruiting and hiring talent, training them, and supporting them during their time at the organization. Such a valuable department should have a commensurate budget, not only to function well, but because finding good HR talent is hard to come by.
Additionally, viewing anonymous feedback as “not actionable” means that companies are prioritizing silence and keeping things swept under the rug rather than putting effort, time, and money into solving these issues. Anonymous feedback is shown to encourage more reporting and feedback — our report found that 74% would be more inclined to share feedback if it’s truly anonymous — and having issues surface should just be the beginning of the greater conversation about what needs to be addressed. Additionally, ongoing avenues for feedback and communication won’t ever overwhelm an HR department — but once-a-year surveys will.
Companies are also recognizing how detrimental the need for psychological safety is when it comes to providing an engaging, thriving environment in which employees can feel safe to share whatever’s on their mind, whether it be suggestions for morale improvement, concerns about their workload, or issues of bias or harassment.
Starting the Mindset Change
There are a lot of positives for the future of employee feedback, and we’re watching the paradigm shift happen, from a world where companies once controlled the narrative to a world where employees will expose the narrative, and create opportunities for growth, change, and engagement.