The Unintended Consequences of Listening to Your Employees (i4cp login required)


So how do organizations employ a listening strategy and send
the right messages? Further, how do they ensure that employees across all
levels trust that they can provide honest feedback, that their feedback will be
addressed and at the same time not impart fear into those who the feedback is
about? How can these unintended consequences be avoided?

While organizations may not be able to remove these
unintended consequences completely, putting time and effort into the following considerations
BEFORE opening up the gates for feedback will most definitely help.

Why Listen?

Before embarking on an employee listening journey, make sure
there is agreement among the highest level of leadership on the actual purpose
of the strategy. Is it to engage employee sentiment? To help develop leaders? To
weed out the ‘bad’ managers? Are there other reasons? Without this clarity and
agreement up front, information gleaned will be used in different ways
throughout the organization —and will likely erode employee trust in the

Is the Feedback Collected Actionable?

Consider this question before asking for feedback on a topic:
“What will the recipient of this feedback be able to do with it once it’s
received?” The mere action of requesting feedback sets an expectation that
feedback about a given topic might result in change. Asking questions that are
not actionable merely creates frustration with the process and leads to lower
engagement in the process overall.

Equally if not more important, consider whether your
organization is going to provide guidance to help recipients of the feedback close
identified gaps. For example, is the company willing to support managers who
need support? Or is it up to each individual feedback recipient to figure out
how to close identified gaps?

If the intent of the program is to ensure managers
understand their strengths and areas for development and to hold them accountable
to act on the feedback, then organizations must provide resources and guidance
on how to develop in these areas. Simply providing feedback is not enough.

What Happens if You Find Out Something Bad?

It is imperative to determine what the organization’s
approach will be if negative feedback about a specific individual is received. If
the communication around the purpose of the listening strategy is for
development purposes only, then looping in HR when a trend of poor management
has been identified could jeopardize trust in the whole program. BUT—if
employees are sending a message through the listening strategy that there is a
problem with a manager and nothing is done about it, trust in the program is
also jeopardized.

To ensure all leaders are aligned on this key outcome, make
sure there is top leadership agreement regarding how knowledge of poor behavior
will be handled and that this is clearly communicated throughout the
organization up front and consistently followed.

What’s the Magic Number?

If the plan is to provide managers with data from the groups
they support, decide up front how many responses are enough on which to report
results, both to ensure confidentiality and at the same time, to not water down
the results so much that they are meaningless.

Also consider how many managers will receive individual
feedback and how this is impacted by the number decided. For example, if it is
determined that 10 people must provide feedback prior to a manager getting
visibility to the data, consider how many managers will not get feedback
as they don’t have 10 people on their teams.

Ideally the number of feedback providers needed for a
manager to see feedback from their teams is the one that will provide the most
impactful information while also ensuring the majority of managers will receive
actionable feedback.

Sees My Data?

Another key decision organizations must make is who sees the data
and across what level of the organization the data is combined. Does senior
leadership see individual-level data for each manager below them OR do they receive
the average scores across their organization without individua level data? Does
each level of leader only see the data for their direct reports? What about the
direct reports of their directs?

Keep in mind that the more people who see individual manager’s
feedback, the more difficult it might be to sell the initiative as one that
focuses only on development. Also, the more the data is combined as its
averaged across organizational levels, the more likely the overall scores will
trend toward the mean, ultimately resulting in less useful data.

Anonymous vs. Confidential

Know whether the data being collected is anonymous (nobody
in the entire organization will know who said what) OR if it is confidential
(individual level data is seen by someone somewhere in the organization but
only group-level data is shared). These terms are often used interchangeably
but do not mean the same thing – and when not used accurately, can lead to
distrust in the process.

Consistency of Feedback Topic

Depending on the size of the organization, this is one area
that can become very complicated very quickly.
But it’s also one of the most important considerations as your listening
program is built out.

Let’s say Company X has warehouse employees, delivery
drivers, consumer-facing store employees, and corporate support. Will all of
these populations care about the same thing? Or, more likely, will they have
different concerns? Does it make sense to ask those whose jobs are more
‘office’ in nature for their input every day? What about those who are on the
factory floor?

Depending on the organization’s size and structure, the
ideal solution is a likely a hybrid—one in which the feedback sought from
employees is sometimes the same (i.e., “how would you rate your current level
of engagement?”) and sometimes different (for those on the factory floor,
perhaps something around cleanliness of the lunch or break room).

Also consider the cadence of the feedback. How many times in
a given month is it suitable to ask a manager to change or add an area of focus
AND continue to do their day job?

If your organization has the capability to provide
opportunities for feedback at various cadences, a good practice to consider is
that the frequency of requested input vary by population – perhaps daily or
weekly for manufacturing-floor employees and monthly for those in an ‘office’
role. Regardless of how the program is set up though, these decisions must be
thought through and determined early on.

What Do We Do With All of This Data?

As organizations determine how often to ask for feedback,
they must also consider their plans for the magnitude of data collected. A
daily pulse of 10,000 employees becomes a large data pool very quicky.

Is the plan to somehow average all the data together to
assess overall employee engagement?  Is
the plan to create reports for managers and if so, will there be trending
analysis to show them where they are improving and where they need to focus?

Collecting loads of data and not using it in the most
effective ways possible is wasting a huge opportunity to analyze organizational
trends—and not providing feedback to managers on how their actions are
impacting their results misses a significant opportunity to provide positive
reinforcement for the efforts made.

The Pressure of Positivity

This is actually the most insidious of the unintended
consequences. Managers with the knowledge that they will be measured on particular
things might also lead to managers trying to influence the outcome of employee
input. The old adage ‘what gets measured gets done’ is no less true here – and
managers feeling pressure to receive positive feedback and therefore wanting to
influence the results is embedded in this process.

Before embarking on a listening strategy, understand and
account for the fact that the more widely the data is shared, the more managers
will feel the potential for judgement, the more pressure there will be on
employees to provide only positive feedback leading to much less meaningful

Final Note

The benefits of providing employees with an avenue to share
feedback far outweigh the potential negatives, but only if trust in the process
is built upfront and forever maintained. Trust once broken is very difficult to
rebuild. By working through the aforementioned considerations prior to
launching an employee listening strategy and revisiting these considerations on
a regular basis, the risks of an employee listening strategy will be
significantly minimized while the very impactful upsides will undoubtedly be

Kari Naimon is a Senior Research Analyst at i4cp.

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