Employee feedback: Get it, use it

David Vine discusses employee feedback schemes and their value to a small company.

You don’t have to have a Master’s degree to figure out that people are any business’ most valuable asset. They are the very soul of your company and their approach to work and how they feel about the company manifests itself in every task that they do, whether that be talking to customers or liaising with colleagues.

That makes finding out what people think within your business critical, but how you go about it is tricky. If you ask them a direct question, they’ll tell you what you want to hear, which is a fruitless exercise. So, how can business owners garner employee feedback that adds value to and moves the company forwards while at the same time motivating and engaging people across the company?

What I learnt as the CEO of a small business, and Dan Pink has written about in his book ‘Drive,’ is that people are motivated more by internal factors than external ones. The first step therefore in developing a productive employee feedback system, is to create a culture of trust. If you want employees to be completely honest with you, they’ve got to know that you’ll take a bullet for them, that you’ll protect their integrity as an individual and that their ideas will be taken seriously. From my experience, culture has a huge impact on the success of any employee feedback initiative.

The second is that an employee feedback scheme needs to be done for the right reason. If you want to find out if they like you or not, then you’re on a hiding to nothing. If, however you want to use it as a platform to nurture people’s emotional intelligence and harness their ideas for the good of the business, then that is going to make people feel valued and important. Especially, if they have a stake in its success.

Next, you need to create a forum where ideas can be focused and channelled. At Concur, we use a web interface, but in previous organisations we’ve used appraisals, anonymous surveys and one-to-ones. I said earlier that if you asked an employee directly, you wouldn’t get their real thoughts on the matter. The trick is to change the question. Rather than asking, ‘what do you think of me?’, how about asking ‘how can we improve productivity in your area?’ The latter question is what is going to give you answers, because that gives people a framework that they can work within. Ask the right question, in the right setting and you’ll be amazed at the ideas that you get back.

Lastly, the most crucial step is that once you’ve got employees engaged in the feedback process, you’ve got to be careful not to lose them. Feedback isn’t and shouldn’t be something done simply to make people feel good. If people feel that you’re paying lip service to the process, they will quickly disengage and such action risks creating resentment. If you ignore their ideas, or worse, pass them off as your own then people will likely leave.

As I mentioned earlier, focus is key. Action the ideas that have potential, give the individual a starring role in implementing it and then promote its successes far and wide, within the company. Buy-in will go through the roof.

The last step is this: get out of the way. Why? Because I can guarantee you that the thing people crave most is autonomy. I found it at my last company and I know it to be true of my team in Concur. All too often, founders of a company fear autonomy. The company is their baby. But like all babies, it grows. Where once there were three of you now there are ten. How do you get everyone to do it as well as you can?

But with autonomy comes responsibility and you’ll be surprised at what that brings with it. Look at Zappo Shoes in the US. All the team work from home and without a script because the company believes that their people will know what to do. The result of this approach? Zappo has the highest customer satisfaction ratings in the US. If you’ve got the right people, with the right feedback mechanisms in place, and you act on good ideas, your company will fly. Building the right team around you is what a good business is all about, as is the ability to recognise when someone has a better idea than you, as the founder or the CEO.

Good communication and management is key to a successful employee management scheme, and it is time well spent because the alternative is that your creative, dynamic and insightful workforce will leave, taking their good ideas with them.

David Vine is manager director, UK SMB, Concur.

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