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The Unintended Consequences of Listening to Your Employees

The good intentions of an always-on listening strategy are many – it lets employees know leadership cares, it helps organizations keep a pulse on employee engagement levels, it provides endless data around retention risk and other important metrics.

In i4cp’s 2021 Priorities and Predictions report, it was noted that “The trend of moving beyond employee engagement to employee experience was only accelerated in 2020, and organizations are using sophisticated sentiment analysis to truly understand issues in the workforce. The focus in 2021 is to move swiftly from data collection to insights to action.

BUT, if not planned and executed effectively, seeking regular feedback from employees can also lead to less-than-ideal results like diminishing employee trust, reducing engagement, increasing unwanted attrition, or other undesirable behaviors.

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 process.

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.

Who 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 data.

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 achieved.

Kari Naimon is a Senior Research Analyst at i4cp.