How can you create a safe space for staff to raise complaints, without it turning into a venting exercise?

Sometimes, as organizations and leaders, we get it wrong.

This is part and parcel of any environment in which humans interact with one another. The danger is, sometimes? We don’t even know that we’ve got it wrong. Even if we’re highly attuned to our workforce, there are times when we miss details; when we fail to understand the impact of a decision; or simply don’t have a finger on the pulse of how our employees are feeling.

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For larger organizations in particular, it’s now pretty standard to have defined and formal processes for reporting grievances or raising staff complaints about the serious stuff – harassment, discrimination, theft, violence.

However, when it comes to general feedback or grass-root disgruntlements about the ‘small’ stuff – those things that may not necessarily have legal implications, but are nonetheless damaging to engagement, brand, and morale if left unaddressed – we tend to be less vigilant.

The challenge is, when you open the door to staff feedback, how do you ensure it’s a productive exercise – and not simply an excuse for employees to vent and moan? How do you safeguard against a knock-on impact on morale, brand, staff retention?

How do we create a healthy culture for staff to provide negative feedback?

Embracing employee feedback for better workplaces

The globe’s most successful organizations have several common traits; they empower staff to feedback on what’s working (and what isn’t); they’re receptive to ideas, innovations, and contributions; and they’re not resistant to change.

In essence, these organizations tend to have a more democratic and collaborative approach to working. They may still operate within a traditional structural hierarchy, but there are processes and a cultural openness to tap into – and act upon – employee feedback.

At the other end of the spectrum, the damaging implications of failing to listen to employees is well-documented. When staff aren’t empowered or don’t feel heard, the ripple effect is often felt across the business. Disgruntled employees will reduce morale and engagement; have an impact on productivity, customer experience, and other key business performance indicators; and ultimately, negatively impact on the overall brand of the business.

It’s easier to receive ideas than it is to receive criticism – no-one enjoys having their shortcomings flagged to them. Often, our response is to go in on the defensive; to deny, pass blame, or shut down. None of these approaches make for a healthy culture or style of management: and may ultimately prove detrimental to business success.

So, the question remains – how do we create a healthy employee feedback culture?

7 steps to build your own feedback culture

This is something I’ve actually been proactively involved in the past couple of months, as Interact undergoes a series of exciting changes due to rapid growth. Following the launch of a new brand and a new website, there are developments to the company and product that will have an impact across the entire organization.

But change, by its very nature, can present challenges, questions, and concerns. As part of a learning curve at Interact, we’re finding a few ways to introduce – and embed – a healthy culture for staff to have their voices heard.

#1: Be proactive

It sounds like commonsense, but often we assume that when staff are unhappy, they’ll speak out.

Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Or, if staff do voice concerns, it stays within the security of their own team or friendship siloes – the dreaded ‘water cooler talk’ that can ultimately prove damaging to morale.

staff complaints

Create a defined and structured process to proactively obtain feedback. This may be in the form of pulse-style surveys, coupled with a more in-depth employee survey on a periodical basis, for example. Then, communicate it: ensure staff are aware of how, and when, they have an opportunity to speak out.

When we began to undergo internal change, we initiated a feedback process to proactively identify and address staff concerns. However, one thing that’s become clear is that while the big change stuff may be more emotive and ignite bigger responses, employees want to put ideas and suggestions forward about the small stuff too. Employee feedback processes shouldn’t be an adhoc when change demands, or swept into the guise of the annual appraisal: they should be part of the day-to-day management structure within your organization.

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Happiness: the key to business success in 2018

Happy employees are twice as productive as their unhappy counterparts. Get our 5 tips to help create a happy and productive workforce.

The creative ideas below are sure to help new hires feel welcome and excited about their new position.

#2: Adopt a multi-channel approach

Unsurprisingly, we use our own software as an internal comms tool: our intranet, Worklife, is a go-to place for staff to find out what’s happening in the business. Alongside this, our Friday Chats are a long-standing tradition: a member of senior management will deliver a weekly business-wide ‘town hall’ style update, which is recorded and published to the intranet to be viewed by those unable to attend in person.

However, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ when you’re pushing to get feedback from employees. Often, individuals won’t feel confident asking questions in a large group setting; others are reluctant to have their comments or feedback publicly published on the intranet against their name. Some are more apt at writing; others will become more forthcoming when engaging as part of a discussion.

town hall meeting

(Large-scale groups situations can prove intimidating for some individuals, who may not feel comfortable speaking out or providing feedback. Consider a variety of approaches to cater to different personalities and preferences. Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash)

A multi-pronged plan of attack is the best course of action – and the best way to try and ‘capture all’. So, for example, you’re on the cusp of a major strategic business decision that will impact on your staff – opening in a new territory, for example, or considering a new merger or acquisition – and you want to get a good proportion of your employees to weigh in on the decision. You might open with a town hall announcement with a Q&A session for those confident to speak out. Then, you follow up by sending around a digital and printed survey and use a manager cascade structure to conduct smaller group or one-to-one sessions for individual feedback.

Your channel choices will depend on the structure and culture of your organization, alongside the demographics of those working within it.

#3: Make anonymity an option

anonymity is vital for feedback

(Gain more honest feedback by providing anonymity for staff. Photo by William Stitt on Unsplash).

Why are staff reluctant to give honest feedback? Sometimes, it’s down to the fear of potential repercussions. Even if we proactively reassure staff that feedback is welcomed and won’t be held against them, it’s understandable that individuals may still harbor reservations about speaking out.

Anonymity was an option offered both in our survey and our Employee Forum when we sought to get staff feedback on internal changes. No names or details were requested on the online survey; the forum was conducted under the premise that all suggestions put forward would be anonymized and taken forward to senior management by an elected individual, without a name against them.

Anonymity gives freedom and confidence to speak out, but be aware; it can come at a cost. If specific issues arise but management can’t question individuals further, or understand where they’ve come from, they may be restricted from taking action or correcting it effectively. It also reinforces the idea that its risky to speak out in person – perhaps not what you want for a healthy feedback culture.

#4: Exclude senior management – initially

We may strive to be the most approachable, friendly, and down-to-earth examples of managers in the world, but at the end of the day? We’re still managers. (And, let’s be honest – not all of us can reasonably claim to be all these things.) This can often lead to feelings of unease, nervousness, or inferiority in those we’re looking to speak out – the resulting tongue-tie can prove detrimental.

The process of excluding senior management from our Employee Forum meant individuals felt more comfortable speaking out and expressing frustrations or disgruntlement, meaning we were better able to tap into the true feelings of staff. Issues were then escalated by a nominated member of staff.

It also meant we were able to streamline what was raised; when you have 15+ people talking about things they care about, you’ll find that there’s a lot of circling around certain issues, many cross-overs, and generally it can seem to lack direction. By listening, writing everything down, and then condensing and streamlining it, we were able to give senior management a clear list with action points that was more digestible.

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Happiness: the key to business success in 2018

Happy employees are twice as productive as their unhappy counterparts. Get our 5 tips to help create a happy and productive workforce.

The creative ideas below are sure to help new hires feel welcome and excited about their new position.

#5: Tap into all your different workforce demographics

What happens to those front-line staff, who may rarely – if ever – have visibility of senior management? What about your shop floor staff who only periodically have access to a work computer, or those transport workers who don’t even have a corporate account?

These are often the individuals who not only have the greatest understanding of how your business is functioning at grassroots level (and, therefore, are in the strongest position to provide insights and feedback to improve performance) but due to the nature of their dispersed way of working, will report feeling the highest levels of isolation or disconnect form the business.

Take stock of everyone in your business – not just those in HQ – and understand how they communicate with the organization. Then, define a process for getting their voices heard.

#6: Push for the solution

If all we’re asking of employees is for them to outline everything they think is wrong with our business, we’re on a fast-tracked route to creating a moan fest. Whatever channel or process you’re using, consider the language and positioning you opt for. Is this a ‘chance for staff to voice their frustrations’, or ‘an opportunity for staff to provide feedback and contribute ideas to shape the development of the business’?

If you’re facilitating a face-to-face feedback session, push staff to put forward solutions, not just problems. OK, you’ve said you’re unhappy with how the business communicates news to you. How would you prefer to be informed of changes? What ideas would you like us to put forward?

ideas not solutions

(Ideas, not just problems, are the way to instil a positive culture around providing feedback. Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash)

#7: Acknowledge and take action

Nothing is more disheartening than giving up time and effort to contribute ideas and feedback, only to never hear anything further.

Whatever approach you go for, ensure you’re not seen to be listening and instantly forgetting. Acknowledge the feedback and thank those who have stepped forward and contributed. Then, communicate back to your employees. Set out what actions will be taken and provide guideline timescales where feasible. If something isn’t actionable right now, say so – and explain why. When responding to employee feedback, honesty really is the best policy.

When staff believe their contributions have been heard and actioned, they’re more likely to step forward and give feedback in the future; helping to embed that process into your company culture.

Employee feedback

(Source: Tiny Pulse)

Without feedback and input from your employees, you can’t reasonably expect to reach your full potential as a business.

Tapping into staff perspectives enables you to see your business from a different angle; to identify and address areas of concern quickly; to discover why employees are leaving the business (and how to prevent it); and, ultimately, provides you with a more thorough understanding of management, team, and overall business dynamics. If you don’t regularly pulse-test where you are at a given moment, it becomes more and more difficult to course-correct as time goes on.

Make employee feedback a foundational principle in your business. It’s worth the effort.

eBook

Happiness: the key to business success in 2018

Happy employees are twice as productive as their unhappy counterparts. Get our 5 tips to help create a happy and productive workforce.

The creative ideas below are sure to help new hires feel welcome and excited about their new position.