From Data to Action
How to ensure a response to feedback from employees
Responding to employee feedback is a major challenge. Globally, only 42% of communication managers agree that their organisation “Responds promptly to feedback” (source: Who’s Listening Report 2021). Those organisations that do respond promptly show the strongest associations with the capability to manage change effectively, developing innovative new ideas and creating a place that feels fair to work in.
The important things to do are:
- Generate a visible leadership response
- Publicise and remind people of the actions taken from previous surveys
- Focus on common goals and shared purpose
- Develop a mindset that leaders and managers are not solely responsible for finding solutions to issues that the survey identifies
- Provide support for managers in the form of toolkits and frameworks they can use to support local conversations and action planning.
1. Generate a visible leadership response
The most important lever is the CEO and the leadership team who need to be seen to be committed to listening to their employees. Gallagher’s latest “State of the Sector” Survey has just reported that 85% of some 800 communication specialists across the world see the CEO as the key to transformational change.
In our research on listening, leaders’ role models and the personal involvement of leadership in listening activities is cited again and again as the factor that makes the difference.
On line leadership listening events are now used by 44% of organisations on an ongoing or at least quarterly basis, but 48% never or rarely use them
Why is the visibility of leadership so important? For at least four reasons:
- The leader sets the example. Demonstrating that he or she is concerned with the views of employees sets an example to the rest of the business that peoples’ views matter. This encourages other leaders and managers to pay attention to the survey results and work on a response to the issues raised
- For employees the leader’s actions demonstrate that their opinions matter and that they are valued. This in itself is motivating
- By paying attention to the employee voice the leader helps create an “ingroup” that is the employees of the organisation or business. Feeling part of an ingroup, appreciated by its leader, increases a sense of identity and collaboration
- Lastly, the activity can help the leader because it helps mitigate against stereotyping the employee population. Getting out to talk to and listen to employees provides a richer perspective on what is going on within the business. This helps improve the quality of decision making and leadership in the business.
The way leaders can be more visible varies between organisations and depends upon their size and culture. Activities mentioned by many companies include:
- Town Hall sessions discussing feedback with large groups
- Smaller discussion groups with more wide-ranging input driven by participants
- Listening circles – a more fly on the wall approach in which leaders sit in on employee forums, employee resource groups or survey related task forces
- Management by walking around – a conscious effort to be visible and connect to people on a regular basis
A common concern raised by communication and HR teams is that leadership teams may not prioritise their involvement in listening activities. Sometimes leaders avoid them for fear of stifling debate – an alarming rationale that indicates a lack of psychological safety within a business.
To motivate leadership teams to be more visible, it’s helpful if the data that surveys collect clearly matter and feel relevant and important:
- Tie the listening process and data analysis to the commercial success of the business to raise the significance of the data. For example: tracking how employee data looks different in high performance teams; in areas of great customer service; in more productive units. The more the listening process visibly predicts and explains impact on performance the more leadership is likely to support and engage in the listening process
- But at the same time, ensure the executive team don’t just feedback responses to ideas and suggestions related to critical business drivers such as new revenue streams, new product ideas, cost cutting initiatives, or competitive advantage. A survey process needs to explore issues that all employees care about which may surface issues around environmental concerns, working conditions, reward and benefits, etc. A visible leadership response connects commercial and people issues and establishes the links between them. To be successful organisations need motivated and engaged people to drive performance, and to be credible leadership needs to recognise and understand these are linked, show that they understand the link and demonstrate the desire to address the issues raised by employees.
Some other practical activities to increase leadership visibility can include:
- Get the CEO and the leadership team out and about in feedback sessions so that they are seen to be engaged in the response
- Provide company-wide updates on listening themes and actions throughout the year, not just following the initial results
- Set up Listening Circles for the leadership team to sit in on employee led discussions and forums – one of the main Government Departments does this and tells the leaders to be “flies on the wall” so that they can really hear what is on peoples’ minds
- Establish a rhythm with leadership agendas shaped by employee input – some organisations use tools like Slido or Mentimeter to make sure that each Town Hall enables the leadership to shape current and future agendas around employee concerns.
2. Publicise and remind people of the actions taken from previous surveys
Clearly shortly after the survey completes, results need to be shared and quick wins – if they exist – can be communicated. But organisation wide issues are not easy to fix quickly, and some will never be fixed because they represent dilemmas that are insoluble. Nevertheless, it is important to remind people of issues raised and processes or strategies developed to address these. Some companies make these a regular feature of leadership communication so that survey themes are revisited throughout the year, reinforcing the importance of the insights generated by employee feedback.
People often forget that work underway was stimulated by input through surveys so it is helpful to keep referring back to this. One helpful rule is to gather and post all major actions developed prior to and during the launch of the next round of the survey. One organisation that did this, including reminders of previous results and actions in the internal marketing of the survey process, saw its response rates rise dramatically. As the survey arrived on peoples’ phones and desktops they were reminded of the impact of their previous input which helped to motivate a higher response.
3. Focus on common goals and shared purpose
At the local level it is helpful to think about why people want to work for the organisation. For everyday employees, what makes their work meaningful and what concerns do they have about how to improve the workplace? Then link local actions and responses to the higher purpose.
That may sound high-falutin but organisations often focus heavily on commercial or financial objectives while employees are motivated by other issues. For example, teams in the public sector are urged to focus on how we can improve productivity but are more interested in how we can save lives, and teams in professional services urged to win business may be more interested in client service.
Key to engaging people, and generating local responses to the issues raised in surveys, is to help the team think about how local actions contribute to shared purpose. For example, the survey may identify silo working as an issue. The team’s challenge is to establish how working across boundaries will help service customers more effectively, or improve safety, etc.
The importance of purpose has been made clear by research from organisations like Gallup, and it is clear from recent developments in how our brains work that linking what we do to purpose makes a big difference. Adam Grant in his book Give and Take showed how introducing fundraisers to the beneficiaries of the work they do had a transformative impact on their performance. It makes a big difference to motivation, collaboration and innovation when people can connect their action planning discussions to a deeper purpose.
Practical activities to link survey feedback to purpose can include:
- Structure feedback conversations around themes related to core purpose. For example, how we make a difference to customers (in banking), how we save or improve lives (in health), how we build the community (in local government). While leaders might be engaged by productivity and performance, everyone cares about what the business does for others and why it exists
- Celebrate and share tangible changes resulting from employee input. For example, one company introduced a working adjustment passport for employees with disabilities to help capture important needs that new managers and colleagues needed to be aware of – such as the need to leave work ahead of others. Another listed the innovations that had resulted from the previous round of feedback as part of the introduction to the next survey
- Engage people creatively when thinking about how we respond to results. This could involve asking people to put themselves in customers’ or stakeholders’ shoes or using Edward de Bono’s six hats exercise to gain different perspectives. An award-winning example of this was when local government in York Region introduced a Dragon’s Den initiative in which employees pitched new ideas to panels of peers to improve local services. For this and other examples of global good practice in listening see the second “Who’s Listening Report”
- Use stand-out stories, representative quotations and anecdotes from employees in survey feedback to personalise the employee voice
- Collect video diaries to bring voice to life, adding a more emotive content to feedback and increasing its impact. Again, a story illustrating how to use this approach features in the second Who’s Listening Report – see above
4. Develop a mindset that leaders and managers are not solely responsible for finding solutions to issues that the survey identifies
We have probably all experienced the frustration of raising a problem in order to discuss it only to find that our friend, manager or partner thinks they have the answer. Or, turning it on its head, Nancy Kline put it well in “Time to Think” when she wrote that “A manager’s ability to turn meetings into a thinking environment is probably an organization’s greatest asset.”
The reality is that some issues and problems may well be capable of “fixing” without much conversation (e.g., broken windows and other things that do not work in the environment) while others require work on the underlying causes and benefit from multiple perspectives (e.g., why aren’t we better at recognising good performance, why is inter-departmental co-operation so poor?). A manager running a debrief cannot “fix” these problems. But by asking the right questions she can help her colleagues explore the issue, and she can bring others into the conversation to help the team develop a longer-term plan to influence and improve the situation.
An inspirational example
The mindset issue is harder for leaders running debriefing sessions with large groups and, on a pedestal, expected to address thorny issues that employees will raise.
For example, in one organisation the issue highlighted by a survey was the perception that people did not get sufficient feedback on their performance. The business had decided to invest in more management development as a result. The Finance Director running the feedback could have announced this as the solution to the problem. Instead, she invited the group of about 50 to spend 5 minutes in pairs discussing what they thought lay behind the problem. Then she asked for input from some of the pairs and quickly identified a range of issues covering not just the need for management development but also an overly task focused culture, a lack of celebrating success within the business and a culture that failed to recognise peoples’ contributions.
She ended the meeting by inviting volunteers to a task force to look at how her function could address the cultural issues, committed to feedback the issues raised to the executive team and told people about the investment in management development.
Without making any commitments or fixing any problem she left the room buzzing with the sense that people had been heard and that action was underway.
Support for managers: Mindset
The most corrosive and damaging barrier to listening in organisations is the feeling that nothing changes as a result of sharing opinions. In hierarchical organisations where there may be feelings of “us and them” there is a potential trap. Employees complete a questionnaire highlighting sometimes deep-rooted cultural issues. Then wait for managers to fix the insoluble.
For the manager the danger is thinking that “I have to solve all the problems” or have an answer to all the issues. In feedback sessions this reduces effectiveness for at least two reasons:
- The manager worries about responding rather than listening intently.
- The employee feels dis-empowered because they are not invited to share in developing solutions.
However, if you ask most people when they have felt most productive, engaged and happy at work they will describe times when they worked with colleagues and managers who gave them responsibility and stretch while supporting them. Creating spaces where people feel free to speak up and valued for their opinions. Managers who think that they have to solve all the problems do not foster this climate.
To respond well to surveys at local levels involves helping managers and team leaders understand this role. For example, if the survey is highlighting dissatisfaction with workloads the manager’s job is to ask good questions and explore issues. They need to work with the team to identify root causes and those that we can deal with (e.g., how we prioritise, allocate work and share information), those that we might be able to influence (e.g., policies and systems that the organisation uses to allocate resources, track time and communicate) and those that are outside our control (e.g., the pandemic). The circles of influence tool is helpful.
While tools are important the biggest barrier to listening well can be managers (and leaders) who feel that they need to find the solution to all the problems. It’s a mindset issue.
Practical activities to help this mindset can include:
- Before leading responses to survey sessions, get a group of managers to reflect and share stories of when they have been most engaged and productive and explore the role of their managers at the time. Use the lessons from this discussion to plan how we will lead feedback and action planning
- Train and work with a group of listening champions to support managers in facilitating productive action planning sessions
- Set up weekly lunch and learns in which employees are invited to share how they have been working on issues raised by the survey
- Use team listening exercises (picture an inverted team briefing model) in which managers and team leaders host discussions in which they learn from employees about issues of concern (HSBC won awards for its work in this area)
5. Provide support for managers in the form of toolkits and frameworks they can use to support local conversations and action planning
To support managers to take action:
- Provide clarity about the organisational level responses to the issues identified in surveys to give important context for local team-based responses. For example, if “working in silos” is an issue, share any leadership conclusions about root causes and any proposed structural or high-level working process actions
- Speed is of the essence and the big trap that leadership needs to avoid is thinking that they must have all the answers before results and local action planning commences. Instead provide timelines and plans to address issues but do not hold up local sessions because this reduces the impact and relevance of findings, and increases the sense that nothing is happening in response to employees’ feedback
- Equip managers with the awareness and skills to lead the sessions as exploratory discussions rather than “you said, we did” type exchanges. See the exercise outlined in the mindset piece
- Team leaders and supervisors need ‘simple to use’ tools that help them involve people in responding to survey results. E.g.
- Action planning workshops following a simple to follow structure (e.g., the ORID framework: objective data; our reflections; how we interpret that; what we should do)
- Circles of influence toolto identify what we can and cannot control and influence
- Brainstorming and impact/ease toolto prioritise ideas
- Force Field Analysis to analyse forces in the local system that will drive or resist change
- Task forces to involve employees across teams working on issues
- Putting in place the discipline and tools to support team leaders and managers in the response cycle involves managing the process so that it provides local, relevant and salient data. It is not always easy to do this especially with smaller teams. Often survey systems restrict data reporting for small units to protect anonymity. In these cases, the toolkit needs to include processes that encourage teams to explore how some of the bigger themes affect their work. So, for example, if the issues of silos has come up at the whole company level the circles of influence tool may be helpful to explore what we can and cannot influence; or stakeholder mapping might help the team identify local teams that they interface with and how local activities might help build collaboration
- Equip a group of listening champions or change agents to support local managers take action. One global organisation created a team of 14 engagement champions whose primary role was to support change at their sites following publication of the global survey results. They came together to share ideas about what worked and did not work in their different sites, to identify common issues (like unsupportive local leadership teams) to brainstorm approaches, to learn new tools, and to agree what they needed to do to sustain themselves as a virtual network.
The ideas above all help address the issue of responding to employee feedback – one of the biggest challenges that gets raised again and again as a “pain point” in organisational listening to employees.
Don’t hesitate to reach out for a conversation to discuss this further – and the sooner response plans are factored into planning the better. How we intend to respond affects survey design and the questions that need to be asked.
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Designing and leading conversations for change:
Our listening work includes:
Listening Lab – Benchmark listening strengths and weaknesses
Listen up – Build listening capability amongst leaders and managers; develop listening champions
Insight Groups – Deep Dive into organisational issues
Engagement Café and Ideas Exchange – Involve people in developing solutions
Visioning Workshops – Co-create future visions and strategy
Hot Spots – Transforming performance: bottom up
Big Conversation – Build line of sight to strategy
Bushcraft – Equip change agents with skills
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