Employee feedback: Why you need to stop avoiding the hard conversations

Thought Leadership on Talent and H.R. presented by Speed Raceway.

We all get those moments when we feel like bad news is imminent. Whether it’s right before you hop onto a scale for the first time in a year, or 10 minutes before you walk into the doctor’s office for a “routine” checkup, the feeling is the same. You become stricken with fear and anxiety, wishing you could return to an earlier date when you still had an opportunity to change the now almost certain outcome.

Sometimes we end up being right, and the news is devastating. Other times we’re wrong, and we laugh off the stress we’ve just caused ourselves, promising not to worry as much in the future. The paradox is that both outcomes reinforce the same response: the visceral need to avoid the possibility of bad news at all cost. As business leaders, the same phenomenon exists, and it’s just as reckless as a person avoiding doctors and scales.

As business leaders, we sometimes believe our own truths too easily and avoid outside information, for fear that it will contradict us. Social scientists call this sort of behavior information aversion. Others more casually term it the Ostrich Effect, based on the old-fashioned belief that ostriches bury their heads in the sand when they see danger coming. The term is used for the mistaken belief that our problems will go away if we just ignore them.

In business, when we avoid a small problem, such as how our employees really feel about the workplace, it generally leads to a large rift between management and staff. This self-fulfilling cycle spirals out of control as the delusional management team continues to make decisions based on false information, and the unsatisfied staff continues to resent being misunderstood. This type of rift creates low worker morale and facilitates costly turnover.

Just how costly is turnover to a business? Studies vary, but when considering factors like hiring, recruitment costs, training and productivity loss, most predict that losing an employee can cost anywhere between a few months and a few years’ salary for that position. Because many of the costs of turnover, including overwork and disengagement among the remaining employees, are hidden, it’s almost impossible to determine its true impact.

One of the simplest, yet often most difficult and unused, ways to lower your turnover rate is by offering employees an open and judgement-free forum to express opinions about their jobs and the company as a whole. This employee feedback is vital to remaining in touch with the pulse of your people and can save you thousands of dollars per year in hidden turnover costs. The resulting feedback is not always pretty and is rarely what you expect. However, it costs so much more not to know. Employees tend to leave companies for many reasons, and only some of them can be affected by altered management strategies. Yet, the only way to find out what your employees think is to ask.

What questions should you ask, and when?

It’s not enough to be open to feedback. To be truly successful, you must actively seek it out. One-on-one meetings are a great time to ask open-ended questions about employee satisfaction. The lack of influence and ridicule from other employees can lead to greater honestly. Therefore, when asking a question like, “What do you like the least about your job?” or “How can I help you be more successful?”, you might actually receive some real insight that can lead to positive change.

Hire someone else to do it

One of the keys to honesty and to gaining potentially valuable feedback is trust. The innately oppositional nature of the employer-employee relationship breeds caution when matters of trust are addressed. Even the longest-tenured employee at a great company will hesitate when asked for an unrevealed truth. “Why do they want to know?” or “How will this affect me?” are the usual knee-jerk reactions. The easiest way to avoid this is to hire a third-party group to capture employee feedback for you. There will still be questions, but the most important thing for your employees to know is how much you value their feedback and how you hope to use it in a positive way to better their work experience. If all else fails and trust is still an issue, allow employees to give their feedback anonymously.

Information can sometimes be scary. One of the leading studies on information aversion has to do with the propensity of women to not schedule mammograms after they learn about a friend or coworker being diagnosed with breast cancer. However, not knowing the facts doesn’t make the reality less true. It merely leads to a longer pattern of inaction and a deeper, more costly solution down the road.

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