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Annie Hayes



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How to: Understand what your people really think


And what to do when you know; read on to find out what part employee surveys, feedback from the line and company councils play in the communications mix.

Organisations spend a lot of time, effort and money trying to find out what their people are thinking. The notion is that if they can just get a handle on their people’s true opinions and feelings then they can better manage the attitudes and behaviours that flow from them. Let’s start by reviewing what organisations do to understand their people.

Many organisations carry out regular employee opinion surveys. They are useful in identifying broad issues and identifying trends against a range of criteria. However, response rates often fall over time partly because what’s really important to people can fall outside the scope of the survey and partly because only limited or no action is taken on important issues that do fall within the scope of the survey.

Where surveys ask for additional verbatim comments, the organisation often finds it difficult to analyse and respond to issues that do not quite fit with prevailing management thinking as generally defined by the scope of the core survey.

Feedback from the line
Some organisations rely on their line managers to pass the views of employees on to the central decision makers. This might be an informal, though expected part of the line management role or there might be a structured briefing process in place, which can work well. The problem is that line managements effectiveness at getting the message through is notoriously variable, either because they’re so busy with today’s tasks that they don’t have the time and/or they are just not very good at listening; worse still at hearing or for what ever reason feel inhibited in passing ‘the truth’ up the line to their boss.

Company councils
These can be useful and important but they are quite directed in what they discuss, are often a part of the organisation’s political process and sometimes not very good at communicating.

There are other feedback mechanisms, for example online comment or suggestion schemes, ‘write direct to the boss’ schemes and so forth but in many cases these approaches only capture the views of a vocal minority and sometimes the feedback is so outside what’s expected it is either misunderstood or just not utilised.

So how do you get to really understand what your people think and perhaps more importantly, what do you do when you know?

The A, B, C method
This first thing to do is to differentiate between getting feedback on

  • (a) management approaches, plans and actions

  • (b) suggestions and ideas and

  • (c) what employees really think about anything that is important to them.

It is (c) that often underpins and influences thinking and action under (a) and (b).

To do this you need three things:

1. A culture that encourages open comment on just about anything – I once worked as an HR manager in a business that had an ethnically mixed workforce with origins in Pakistan, the Caribbean and ‘Old England’. The recently published cartoons depicting Mohammed would have greatly upset the Moslems and losing a cricket Test series would have, for less serious reasons, upset the West Indians. Not business problems you may think but both these examples would have had serious effects on relationships, productivity and consequently business results.

2. A way of getting directly involved with people in their world – when Dian Fossey the inspiration for the film Gorillas in the Mist wanted to understand gorillas, she was advised that observing them would only change their normal behaviour and that she must become one of them to gain acceptance and a real understanding of their communication, their relationships, rituals and ‘world view’. Now I’m not suggesting that people are gorillas but there is an interesting parallel here I think and insight and learning can come from many sources.

3. A mechanism that brings your people’s view into the decision making process – I’m not making a political point here but it’s now pretty clear that the falling overall number of votes in general elections is directly related to the feeling that once elected, politicians won’t listen to what the voters have to say.

HR professionals should consider these three areas in the context of their own organisations:

  • Consider utilising the shadow organisation as well as the formal organisation. Get out and about and talk to the opinion formers and find those ‘barometers’ that reflect the prevailing mood of the organisation. And keep finding new people to talk to; don’t get stuck with a few, as this will become ritualised.

  • When you’re out and about ask opinions but don’t lead the conversation and don’t use it as an opportunity to ‘put them straight’. Do however express your own opinions.

  • Get your senior people out and about and get them to pick up a few issues – things that stop people giving of their best – and get them to commit to fixing them. Then make sure that they do! And tell people that they have.

  • Invite some ‘shop floor’ people to shadow some senior people. Value them and enable them to make suggestions about how your senior people might work smarter. Give them feedback about the effect.

  • Give your senior team a periodic ‘state of the nation’ view and do a deal with them that they will listen to and incorporate this into their own thinking and action.

When you have this approach in place you might want to encourage all your managers to behave in a similar way. You will find that this will not only open out communication and understanding but, consequently, will also improve motivation, morale and performance.

Roy Gaynor, is Managing Director of management consultants’ training and support network, Navisys Academy.

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Annie Hayes


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