How to get employee feedback in the workplace all starts with how you ask for it.
When someone invites you to an event or a party, you typically don’t automatically decide to go. You probably weigh a couple factors.
Was it the host who invited you, or a friend of a friend? Did they put a lot of thought into inviting you, or was it this kinda last minute thing?
In other words, do they really care if you show up or not?
When you ask for feedback from an employee, it’s the same thing — it’s an invitation. You’re inviting people to “show up.” To spend their time with you, share their perspective, and be honest with you. So unless you put some thought into how you invite people for feedback, you’re probably not going to get a good turnout.
Given this, there are a few things I always keep in mind when I want to invite someone to give me candid feedback…
(1) Go first.
If I go into a conversation expecting the other person to be vulnerable and give their honest opinion, I better be willing to do it myself first. So I always try to make sure I admit something myself.
For example, I might say to someone, “How do you think our last project went? I feel like I personally didn’t do the best job at X. I’d really benefit from your honest perspective on how things could’ve been better.” This helps put the other person at ease, and establishes a common ground for going forward.
(2) Ask “what” instead of “any.”
About four years ago, the wonderful Tracy Thirion, CEO of Bamboo Worldwide, shared this insight with me: When you ask “what” instead of “any”, you invite a greater response to a question.
For example, when you ask, “Do you have any frustrations?” it’s very easy for the person to default and say “no.” But when you ask, “What could be better in the company?” that question assumes that there are things that could be better. It opens the opportunity for someone to provide a more honest answer.
(3) Be specific.
Seems obvious that specific questions invite specific feedback, right? But it’s easy to forget in practice. So I always try to give people a specific timeframe to contextualize their feedback.
For example, instead of asking, “What could we do better?”, which usually leads to generic, vague responses, I’ll ask, “What’s something in the past 2 weeks that we could’ve done better? ” When you narrow that frame of reference to “the past two weeks”, it’s much easier for the other person to respond.
These small tips have been helpful to me every time I ask for feedback. It’s more than just asking someone for honest feedback.
“Have you ever been the last to know something in your company?”
As the CEO of Know Your Company, an employee communication software tool, I’ve asked this question to dozens of business owners, founders, and CEOs. The response is almost always the same…
“Yes, I’ve definitely been the last to know something in my company.”
Perhaps you were surprised to learn that some new hires felt a bit disconnected from the rest of the office? Or you had no clue one of your employees was under-performing when you thought things were going well? Or worse, were you blindsided when a senior employee you’ve leaned on for years put in her two week’s notice?
If you’d only known about these issues earlier, then you could’ve done something about them, right?
You could’ve avoided a small setback from snowballing into a bigger problem. You could’ve implemented a company change that would’ve been well-received. You could’ve kept a few key employees longer…If only you weren’t the last to know.
That’s the real cost to being the last to know — you lose time, energy, money and people. It’s dangerous to run a company and not know it as well as you’d like. It means you’re flying blind.
So why does being the last to know happen in the first place? And, as a business owner, founder, or CEO, what can you do about it?
Why you’re always the last to know
Being the last to know is a natural part of being the boss. When you’re the boss, there’s an inherent power dynamic underpinning every interaction you have with your employees.
Fear comes into play. Employees worry about you treating them differently if they speak up. In an employee’s head, you might take a comment personally and become defensive. You might choose to delay a promotion. You might even fire her or him.
But this feeling of fear is not the biggest reason why employees choose not to share what’s on their minds.
The number one reason employees don’t speak up at work is because of a sense of futility — they believe even if they were to say something, nothing would change. They don’t think their opinion or idea will have an effect on the outcome. In fact, studies have shown futility to be 1.8 times more powerful than fear as an obstacle to giving feedback.
This means as a manager, founder, or CEO, you need to overcome these sentiments of fear and futility if you don’t want to be the last to know…
How to avoid being the last to know
Here are four strategies you can employ to foster employee communications and convince staff their opinions will be acted on.
1. GO FIRST
If you want an employee to share their honest opinion with you, you have to be willing to share your honest opinion with them first. You can’t expect someone to be open with you, if you’re not open with them.
One way to “go first” is to ask for advice, instead of for feedback. When you frame the conversation this way, it takes pressure off the situation. People are always willing to give advice, or to lend a hand… versus giving feedback, which can feel like giving a critique.
Try saying this: “I could use your advice on this…”
Another way to “go first” is by admitting a vulnerability. This might be in the form of you sharing a problem you’re struggling with. This sets the expectation that you want to hear honest, non-sugar-coated information.
Try saying this: “I’m struggling with…” or “Can you help me understand something?” or “Hey, I don’t have all the answers…”
Your job is to make your employees feel as safe as possible to speak up. You’d be surprised how simply leveling with an employee can influence how much she or he opens up to you.
2. ASK SPECIFIC QUESTIONS
To get the information you want about your company, you have to ask your employees what you want to know. You can’t expect the answers to come to you. Answers only come when you ask questions.
But the questions you ask can’t be just any ol’ questions. If you ask a general, half-hearted question, you’ll get a general half-hearted response.
For example, ask someone “How’s it going?” and I’ll bet that nine times out of ten, the response will be, “It’s fine. Things are going fine.”
Instead, ask “What’s one thing about the last project we completed that could’ve gone better?” I guarantee that you’ll unlock a lot more valuable honest feedback because you’re asking for something specific (“one thing”). This question is also anchored around a specific event (“the last project we completed”). The more specific the question, the better.
Try saying this: “What’s one thing… ?” or “How did that last meeting go… ?” or “What could have we done about the client project we just finished… ?” or “What should we talk about during our next all-company get-together… ?”
Another way to ask specific questions is to time box the question to a specific period of time.
For instance, instead of asking, “What do you think we could improve on?” you should ask, “What one thing in the last two weeks could we have improved on?” By asking someone to reflect on the last two weeks, all of a sudden it’s easier for that person to recall and think through what feedback they have for you.
Remember, specific questions yield specific answers. General questions yield general answers.
3. SET AN EXAMPLE
As a leader people look to your actions as an example. This is especially true when it comes to communicating openly and honestly.
When someone brings up a tough topic, do you get testy and a bit defensive? Or do you calmly listen and ask thoughtful questions? Your reaction will be their benchmark of whether they’ll feel comfortable bringing up these hard conversations with you in the future.
Use this to your advantage. Set an example with your reaction and create the tone you want in your company. You want your reaction to exemplify, “Here’s how we treat bad news… We welcome it. We want to hear it.”
One way to do this is to show gratitude to an employee who brings up a dissenting opinion. Thank that person, and do it publicly.
Try saying this: “I appreciate that viewpoint…” or “It means a lot to hear…”
Another way you can set an example is to emphasize what you have in common with the other person you’re talking to. Despite you disagreeing with an employee, you want to remind them that you have shared intent and mutual goals. You’re all playing on the same team.
Try saying this: “I know we don’t agree on everything, but here’s what I think we do agree on…”
4. KNOCK OUT A QUICK WIN
Take action. That’s the most important thing you can do to make sure you’re not the last to know. After all, that’s the point of getting this information from your employees — to dosomething with it.
It might sound obvious, but knocking out a quick win (no matter how small) can make a real difference.
Is there a low-hanging fruit you just haven’t gotten around to yet? Delegate it to someone you trust and take care of it right away.
Is there a decision that you’ve made that isn’t a big deal to you, but is a big deal to someone else? Pick your battles, be open to changing your mind, and let someone else “have” that one.
Try saying this: “Because of this suggestion, we’re going to do this…”
Employees value responsiveness. They’ll feel encouraged that their words led to action. That momentum will have a positive effect on morale.
Discover more about your company
I get how hard this is to do. Especially as a CEO myself, it’s something I still personally struggle to prioritize. It’s anxiety-inducing to open ourselves up to something we don’t want to hear. And sometimes it feels like a distraction, when we’re just trying to execute on the day-to-day of running a business.
But if we want our business to be the best it can be — to serve our customers well, to be great place for our employees to work — we have to dig deep and be willing to learn what we don’t yet know.
We have to commit to discovering more about our company.
What I wrote back in 2013 to remind myself of what matters as we develop Know Your Company’s (now Know Your Team) own organizational culture.
Yesterday was one of those days when I doubted myself a little bit more than usual. It’s happened before, and it’ll happen many more times again, I’m sure.
When I started to feel that doubt creep up, I decided to dig up a document I wrote for myself a few months ago.
Back in early December 2013, when I was gearing up to officially take over Know Your Company, I had done a lot of thinking. I thought about why I wanted to run Know Your Company. What kind of company did I want to ultimately build? What beliefs did I want to stay true to, regardless of what would happen in the future?
So the week before I signed the papers for the deal, I sat down and wrote down the answers to those questions. I wanted to remind myself what not to forget as I set out to run Know Your Company.
Here’s what I wrote (side note: I’m a visual person, so I wrote it out as slides)…
Nothing earth-shattering. But it felt good to write. And it felt really good to refer back to yesterday, to clear my head and set my sights straight on what matters.
It’s amazing how simply writing down what you believe in the most affirms why you’re doing it in the first place. Even if no one sees it (I wasn’t planning on sharing this document) — the reminder is just for you.
On the first day of one of the first jobs I ever had coming out of college, a mentor of mine pulled me aside, and said to me…
“Claire, take a look around the company. Take in everything you see and hear, what you think could be better, and write it all down. Don’t forget that stuff. Since you’re new here, you’re going to see things that we’re not going to see. You’re going to turn over rocks and go, “What’s that? That’s stupid.” You’ll question stuff that we’ve just been assuming. You’ve got fresh eyes — and we need that.”
Years later, that concept still sticks with me. As a business owner, I’ve experienced firsthand the importance of seeing things with “fresh eyes.” Especially, as I’ve begun to hire new folks. I’ll explain my business process to them, and catch myself justifying “the way we do things” because it’s “the way we do things” — not because it’s the right way. What good is that?
The longer we do something, the more “used to” it we become. And the more “used to” it we become, the more details and nuances we stop seeing. Changing circumstances, changing market, changing competition, changing problems…we develop blind spots when we get too “used to” running our own business.
So we need fresh eyes. We need to seek out new perspectives on our business, particularly from the newest employees in the company.
This is a tricky thing to do because new employees are often the ones who are least likely to speak up. The longer you are at a company, the more comfortable you feel in providing a dissenting opinion. But if you’ve just joined the company last week, you don’t want to rock the boat.
To get this information from new folks, you’ve got to actively seek it out. Ask yourself…Who are the people in your company who have fresh eyes? What can you learn from them? What questions are you asking them?
As a CEO, owner, or manager, if you want fresh eyes, you’ve got to ask for it. Sit someone down. Tell them that they can bring something to the team that no one else can.
The importance of onboarding a new employee well cannot be overstated. Here’s how to do it well.
Do you remember the last time you started a new job?
I do. I was intimidated. Everyone in the company already knew each other and “how things work around here”… except me.
I was reminded of this when I spoke on a webinar for New Hire recently. A new employee’s anxiety around joining a company can get in the way of that person doing a good job. So as the CEO, you want to do everything you can to make your new hire feel as welcome as possible when they arrive.
If you don’t onboard a new hire well (or forget to do it all together), it can be a costly mistake. According to a recent infographic in Fast Company, 31% of people have quit a job within the first six months. The cost of losing an employee in the first year is estimated to be at least three times the salary of that employee.
The good news is that onboarding a new hire well can be simple to do.
It comes down to two things: help a new hire overcome the anxiety of joining a new company, and ask questions to ensure the new hire feels connected to the company.
Do these two things well, and you’ll increase the likelihood that your new hire will feel welcomed in your company sooner, and will stay committed to your company longer.
Here are some specific ways for how to do this…
(1) Make the new employee’s introduction to the company a two-way street.
Oftentimes, when new employees are introduced to the rest of the company, they are brought up in front of everyone at an all-company meeting, and asked to share a bit about themselves. For a new employee, this can feel overwhelming. It’s as though a blinding spotlight is being cast on them.
Instead, when the new hire is introduced to the company, make sure everyone else in the company introduces themselves to this new person too. You want to avoid putting this new hire “on the spot” as much as possible. (With our product Know Your Team, we purposefully do this with our Icebreakers feature).
(2) As the CEO, schedule a one-on-one with the new hire that first week.
According to Fast Company, more than 33% of new hires want management to show them the ropes — not HR or other coworkers. This isn’t because a new hire doesn’t value having HR or other coworkers’ perspectives as they learn about the company. They absolutely do. But it’s because connecting with you, as the leader, helps them feel invested in the company’s vision and direction as a whole. They’ll feel more committed about the “why” behind what your company is doing.
If your company has been on a hiring spree lately, and you feel like it’s too challenging to meet with every new hire one-on-one, you can meet with your new hires in small groups. For example, one of our Know Your Company customers, Delta Defense, does this regularly. Their CEO Tim Schmidt will personally meet with every new hire in groups of three to five people, and walk them through their company’s values.
(3) Ask your new employees these four questions during their first week.
When you do sit down with a new hire for the first time, it’s a huge opportunity to get to know a new hire on a personal level, and learn about their expectations of the company. It’s also a great way to show them what you care about in the company by the types of questions you ask. It sets a tone that you’re open to feedback, and genuinely want to hear their insights. Here are four questions you could start with:
– What’s your favorite dessert? Favorite sports team? (or something fun and personal 🙂 ) – What’s one thing that annoyed you about your previous boss / manager at your last job? – What’s one thing that attracted you to our company, above all else? – What’s your biggest fear or worry coming into this job?
(4) Ask your new employees these four questions regularly throughout the year.
Employee onboarding goes beyond the first month they’re with you at the company. It takes time to fully integrate an employee into the company. So you want to ask questions regularly, throughout their time at your company, before something bubbles up into a major issue.
– Do you think the company is the right size? – Have you ever been afraid to suggest an idea at work because you thought someone might shoot it down? – Do you feel like you’re spread too thin right now? – If someone asked you to describe the vision of the company, would a clear answer immediately come to mind?
Onboarding a new employee is something that can easily be overlooked. Especially, if you’re hiring quickly, or if you’ve got someone else in your company dedicated to the training of your staff.
Don’t forget that the way a new employee feels as they join your company is crucial. They’ll remember that first impression — it’ll stick with them throughout their career at your company. You only get one chance to get it right.
So don’t mess it up. Get started off on the right foot, and do these four things when someone new joins your company.
You’ll give your new hire a reason to stay for the long haul.
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Three things to remember when you handle criticism in the workplace.
I recently finished reading a book called, The Four Agreements. The title is a bit hokey. But the content is spot-on.
The book talks about the importance of creating personal freedom. One of these four agreements to create personal freedom is: “Don’t take things personally.”
This really hit home for me. I realized how often I take things personally — especially when it comes to giving and receiving feedback in the workplace.
Our tendency is to interpret the feedback we hear as a personal attack. It’s the biggest reason for why we don’t ask others for feedback.
When someone gives us feedback on our performance at work or about how our company is doing, we get an icky feeling in the pit of our stomach. “What?! How could this person think that?!”
We’re scared to hear something that we might not want to hear. So we avoid asking for feedback.
That’s a problem.
Not wanting to hear feedback means we shut ourselves off from information that will almost certainly be useful in some way.
In any piece of feedback, there is a nugget of helpful information. You’re guaranteed to learn something about a person or your company. Maybe it’s about how your actions are perceived by your employees, or the sentiment about a recent change you made to the company — that information is useful.
You don’t have to agree with the feedback, but you will learn something in listening to it.
The key is to not take feedback personally. Here’s how…
First, remind yourself: “It’s not all about me.”
There are other external forces shaping why a person may be giving you this feedback.
Maybe something happened earlier that day that caused them to be in a sour mood. Or, maybe something happened with their old boss that’s caused them to believe “this work environment sucks.” It has nothing to do with you.
Second, remind yourself: “I don’t need to be liked.”
You don’t need your employees to like you. You do need them to like their jobs and feel fulfilled and excited and motivated to work. But you don’t need them to like you as a person.
The minute you let go of the notion that you don’t need to be liked, by your employees, your leadership team, etc., your focus begins to shift toward what’s best for the company overall. Doing so allows you to open up and hear things that you might’ve previously taken personally.
Third, remind yourself of what you care about.
You do care about your company being successful. You do care about creating the best environment for your employees to thrive.
So if that’s the case, focus on hearing that feedback through the filter of:
“How can I listen for information that will help move my company forward?”
After all, that’s what you want. You want your company to do well. Listen for things that will help you meet that goal — everything else is secondary or irrelevant.
Granted, it’s incredibly hard to not take something personally.
But in reminding yourself of these three things — it’s not about you, you don’t need to be liked, and you care deeply about your company as a whole — you can begin to escape the trap of taking things personally.
By committing to not taking feedback personally, you open your mind to suggestions that could help your company. Employees will appreciate your willingness to ask for feedback — I promise.
You and your company will be so much better for it.
The challenges of running a business are felt by all of us as business owners. Trust me.
Last month, I met with several CEOs. One of them was on the brink of shutting down his business.
His company was having serious cash flow problems. A $30,000/month office lease was pushing his business closer and closer to bankruptcy each day.
Upon hearing this, one of the other CEOs in the room sighed all too knowingly:
“Well, I’m about to sign a 22-million dollar lease if it makes you feel any better.”
We all laughed. In that room together, we’d realized one comforting, relieving truth:
This job of being CEO is hard. And it’s hard for everyone.
It doesn’t matter if you run a 10-person company with a $30,000 lease or a 200-person company with a $22 million lease. If you’re a CEO, you know what hardship feels like. Problems don’t go away. They only evolve. And everyone faces them.
Everyone goes through this. Everyone.
I was reminded of this again more recently when I attended Owner Camp in Denver. It’s a retreat held several times a year where thirty or so digital agency owners come together to talk about the highs and lows of running a company.
You realize this feeling of “ugh wow this is really hard” is not unique to you. You’re not alone. Most business owners (if not all) don’t really know what they’re doing. There’s no where you can go learn “How To Run a Company.” There’s no instruction manual.
As a new CEO, this is music to my ears. I’ve been running Know Your Company for nine months now, and I’ve often times wondered, “Am I the only one struggling this much? Is it supposed to be this hard?”
So to hear from folks who’ve been running companies for twelve, thirteen, fourteen years and hear them say, “Yeah this is hard for me too”… It gives me peace of mind that I’m not screwing things up too badly.
And you as a CEO are not screwing things up, either. Most likely, you’re actually doing pretty okay. Things aren’t as bad as you think they are.
Your problems are normal. The self-doubt, the frustration, the road blocks, the things that blindside you and derail you from where you thought you were heading….That’s the trade-off you make when you decide to take the road less traveled and start a company. When you’re trying to create something from nothing, and have a direct impact on people’s lives — it’s hard.
So don’t be so hard on yourself. Remember that it’s hard for everyone who is on this path, as well.
In other words, it’s not that we’re merely scared of giving feedback. It’s that we don’t think anything will come of the feedback when we voice it. Futility, more than fear, is why employees don’t give feedback or choose not to speak up to their bosses.
A few weeks ago, a friend told me he was thinking about quitting his job. He said it was because of communication breakdowns between him and his boss. Small moments of poor communication had snowballed into a deeper, gnawing frustration for my friend.
I asked if he’d mentioned these moments to his boss. Maybe his boss had no idea these were problems in the first place.
My friend acknowledged that this was most-likely true. But then he said this:
“Even if I did speak up, I don’t think anything would change.”
His words struck me. I had almost forgotten — I had felt the exact same way a few years ago.
Before KYC, I was an employee at another company. Just like my friend, I was unhappy at work. But just like my friend, I didn’t tell my boss about it.
Why? Part of it was due to personality. I’m an introvert. I didn’t want to come across as a “know-it-all” to my boss. Another part of it was fear. I was worried that my boss would interpret my feedback as a personal attack.
But those weren’t the biggest reasons holding me back.
The biggest reason I didn’t give my boss feedback is I believed that even if I did speak up, nothing would change. I believed my boss wouldn’t do anything with my feedback. No action would be taken. And if nothing was going to change, what was the point of me saying anything?
My friend had felt the exact same way. This sense of futility is why we both didn’t speak up. And, as mentioned before, we’re not the only ones to have felt like this (1,2).
So how do you help your employees overcome this sense of futility?
If you’re a manager, business owner, or CEO, the most important thing you can do is act on the feedback your employees give you. Not doing that as a common bad manager mistake that make people quit. After all, that’s why an employee is giving you feedback in the first place — they simply want action to be taken.
Now I’m not saying that you should blindly appease every request that an employee makes. But you have to start somewhere. If you want an open, transparent company culture and a happy workplace, you can’t just talk about it. You have to act in an open and transparent way.
How to avoid the typical bad manager mistake and and avoid good people to quit:
Recognize the messenger
How do treat the people in your company who do choose to speak up? Amanda Lannert, the CEO of Jellyvision, told me that during an all-hands meeting, she publicly thanked an employee that gave feedback. Even though she didn’t agree with the employee feedback, she wanted him to know his voice was heard and his feedback was not in vain, helping maintain the employee engaged.
Explain why you’re not doing something
If you receive a piece of feedback that isn’t practical or doesn’t align with the company’s vision, tell your employees that. Expose your decision-making process. If you don’t, employees will wonder, “What ever happened to that idea I suggested?” They’ll assume that you’re not open to receiving new ideas, and they’ll hesitate to bring up feedback.
Act on something small
Acting on feedback — no matter how small — is the most powerful way to encourage employees to give feedback and to contribute to employee engagement. For example, Dave Bellous, the co-CEO of Yellow Pencil, learned that his company needed a new phone service. So he promptly changed their phone service, and saw an immediate shift in his team’s morale and workplace happiness. This one unassuming change yielded huge results. All because he acted on something small quickly.
At the end of the day, acting on feedback is how we encourage our employee feedback more openly. If we focus on what we do more than what we say, more employees will see that speaking up is not futile.
When I think back to a few years ago when I was an unhappy employee, this action was all I needed to feel comfortable speaking up.
And for my friend thinking about quitting his job, that’s all he needs too.
Not acting on feedback is just one of the many mistakes that make people quit their jobs. Make sure to check out our guides and learn to build a happy workplace that keep your employees engaged: