Want to get useful feedback from your employees? Here’s how to do it.
Let’s start this one with an exercise: Think back to when you were an employee with no managerial power whatsoever, and ask yourself a few questions:
- When your managers/HR department said they had an “open door” policy, did you believe them or think, “IT’S A TRAP!”?
- Did you feel like you could bring up a concern to your manager without repercussions?
- Did you feel like upper management would listen to an idea you had, or just smile and nod?
- If you identify as LGBTQIA+, transgender, pagan, breastfeeding mom, therian, or anything else that might be seen by some as out of the norm, did you feel like you could be yourself at work?
Many of you likely answered those with a long list of “no.” Why? Because you didn’t trust a single soul at work who wasn’t your peer (and sometimes not even those people) and you thought your leadership team would gladly toss you to the wolves if they could get a better parking spot for doing it.
That’s a whole lot of distrust.
Johnny the Funny Programmer
Let me tell you the story of Johnny the Funny Programmer. Johnny was an eccentric programmer who worked for an accounting firm in Seattle. Everybody liked Johnny. He told great jokes, made the outcasts feel included at company events, and showed up on time to work every day.
Johnny had one little problem, though — productivity. He took three or four times as long to get things done as his manager thought he should. Still, programming is hard to judge, and everybody liked Johnny, so his manager put up with his low productivity for years.
One day, the management team decided to put in a new firewall to spy on the websites their employees were visiting. They wanted to know if people were slacking off at work, and what they found shocked them. Johnny was spending most of his day logged into a different computer — at a different company! They confronted Johnny, and he quickly admitted he was working two full-time jobs. After an investigation they fired Johnny — and his manager.
Why did they fire the manager? Funny story. HR conducted an investigation, and they talked to Johnny’s coworkers to see if they’d known about his behavior. Every single person on the team said that of course they knew Johnny worked two jobs! Sometimes he even worked a third as a contractor for yet another company.
HR asked, “Why didn’t you ever say anything?” and they got the same response repeatedly: Johnny’s manager was a tyrant. Everybody liked Johnny, and nobody wanted to get their head chopped off for being the messenger. So they just kept hanging out with their fun coworker and staying under the boss’ radar. It was a team where the rule was “don’t get noticed.”
So, how can we do better?
A trend toward understanding
The concept of feeling valued and safe to speak your mind at work without being yanked into the boss’ office is known in research circles as “psychological safety.” In plain English, it means being comfortable at work under any circumstances. We’re simply going to call it trust.
When you create an environment where your employees trust you, you’ll get better results. Employees WANT to contribute in a meaningful way that’s actually appreciated by their managers and to be their authentic selves without fear of ostracism, yet so often they’re so afraid of retribution they just stay quiet.
If you’re a manager or business owner, creating trust is your goal.
You want employees to feel like they can share honestly, contribute meaningfully, and grow in their careers. Why? Because when you foster an environment that earns your employees’ trust, you’ll see better overall success, earn phenomenal company ambassadors, and enjoy a continuous flow of creative ideas from every corner.
You’ll also get better feedback and won’t be blindsided when someone quits over an issue that’s been festering. And perhaps at the heart of it all, your employees will enjoy coming to work, which means they’ll be more productive, and you won’t have to hire as often.
This is known in research circles as a win-win!
How to make your employees feel at home
The employers who set the standard in this space are the ones who take it seriously, let go of any old, systemic ideas of how the boss-employee relationship should work, and lead by example. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Stop the blame game
Become like one of the states where car accidents are no-fault, and stop chomping at the bit to figure out who effed up. One of the best ways to get your workforce to completely disengage is to go on a witch hunt when a mistake is made.
I’ve been in offices where there’s a tremendous amount of time and fervor dedicated to figuring out who caused a mistake and why. This type of reaction often leads to situations where formerly friendly employees happily throw each other under the bus to avoid punishment.
Why not, instead, look at a thing that happened as just that — a thing that happened. It’s fine to investigate, but the motivation should be to see whether safeguards can be put in place to make sure things go more smoothly the next time. There are likely holes in the process that led to whatever oversight it was.
If it turns out that a mistake was due to negligent behavior on the part of an employee (unintentional or otherwise), the idea of “praise in public, criticize in private” goes a long way. Instead of a public declaration of war, just talk to the person. There’s no better way to terrify your employees than a company-wide email blast proclaiming that “We will find out who did this!”
Praise in public
Heap praise on your team loudly and often. If there’s an employee who’s feeling like their entire life is a fail lately, offering even a little win in public, while saving the criticism for a private meeting, can completely change the way they view their work world. To have even more impact, make it a point to seek out employees that may feel isolated, on the fringe, or otherwise like they are just a cog.
If you do it right, your employees will set themselves on a course to earn those accolades. I know of a company that has one of those old-school prize machines where you put in a token, twist, and a little toy comes out. Managers award tokens for big and little wins, and it’s become such an honor to get one of those cheap plastic toys that employees initiate their own little competitions.
There are so many benefits to systems like this — they foster positive competition and show team members that not only are they valued, but their fellow coworkers are, too. They build trust and camaraderie. The list goes on.
Find ways to say yes to feedback
Public praise can extend to include employees who come up with new ideas, new ways to make a process better, or that killer brainstorm idea that eventually becomes a viral social campaign. One of the things that creates a void around psychological safety at work is the idea that people are just there to do the job that’s in front of them, and nothing more.
This can be a tough pill for some managers to swallow, especially if the feedback or suggestions are to improve something that was originally their concept. When you’re responding, avoid the “yeahbuts.”
Here’s what that sounds like: “Yeah, but here is why we can’t…” or “Great idea, but it’s not in the budget.” Instead, when an employee gives you an idea, do whatever you can to make it a reality, even in the smallest possible way. Maybe we can’t bring the entire company to Hawaii for a week, but we could bring Hawaii to the office with Hawaiian Shirt Friday. It harms no one, it’s fun, and it makes Mary feel great because it was (kind of) her suggestion! Find ways to say yes, instead of defaulting to the ways to say no: “How could we?” instead of “Why can’t we?”
Ask yourself how you would feel in their situation
Remember those questions at the beginning? Putting yourself back in your old shoes — or in this case, someone else’s shoes — shows empathy. The easiest way to get yourself into that mindset is this: Imagine if the circumstances applied to you. Imagine if the complaint, the problem, or the issue was one you had caused (what, you’re perfect?) or a personal or family circumstance. Understand how they feel before you respond; even if you’re just going to say “no” it will come from a better place. Don’t pretend like you’re immune to crappy days or that you’ve never been there.
Invest in training for everyone.
Don’t just invest in leadership development programs for team leaders. Make it a priority for everyone. When every employee is trained, they know what to look for in their leadership. If everyone is trained on implicit bias, and I, as an employee, see an example, now I know to call it out even though it’s not my job. If managers disappear into dark rooms for “training” and come back unchanged, how are employees supposed to know what to expect? Plus, you’re taking proactive steps to cultivate your company’s future leaders.
When you choose a leadership development program, make sure the content is not only relevant, but useful. How many corporate training sessions have you sat through where you huffed and puffed and muttered, “There’s an hour I’ll never get back.” Do your homework, find programs that are applicable to your specific situation, and always take one of the courses yourself as a guinea pig. (Spoiler alert: If you were completely disengaged, everyone else will be, too.)
After the formal training is over, it’s time to make what you learned a part of the company’s DNA. Even the best training programs will be lost in the wind if the ideas aren’t reinforced until they become a habit. Send out little daily reminders, create stickers with key ideas – whatever you need to do to keep employees engaged until it becomes something that just “is.”
Creating a trusting workplace will earn you loyalty, productivity, and employee longevity. It’s basically the closest thing I can offer you to a “magic golden ticket” for making everything in your company better. You can get started today by asking the next person you see one little question: “How can I increase your trust in me?”
And when they answer — listen.