Smart leaders know that a strong company culture and good workplace relationships are founded on open, honest input from everyone in the organization. The higher up you are, the more likely it is that some of the day-to-day operations will slip by you, and the only way to gain insight is to ask your staff what's happening.
"Employees are positioned to see things that are often times not readily visible to the manager," said David Hassell, CEO of employee engagement software 15Five. "They have an inside perspective on what's working and what's not. Gathering employees' honest feedback is critical for tuning in to the myriad of internal and external details that essentially keep the company running."
This type of feedback gathering isn't just good for getting an overview of how your company is running. It can also help identify potential problems among your staff before they occur.
"Feedback helps you figure out what's going to happen before it hits the fan," said David Niu, founder and CEO of employee engagement tool TINYpulse. "It [stems from] a basic human need for recognition. People on the frontlines are closest to the problems [in an organization], and asking for feedback [shows that] management cares and will do something about it."
The problem is that many employees are hesitant to give the blunt, honest truth directly to their bosses, especially if it means they'll have to disagree with or criticize their immediate supervisor.
Niu noted that direct interviews with an employee or employee group will result in a lot of false positive feedback about what's going on. [6 Ways for Small Businesses to Improve Company Culture]
"People hold back because it's their boss and they're afraid," said Niu, whose company recently published a guide to conducting successful employee surveys.
"If employees fear being criticized for their ideas or penalized for their challenges, they will be reluctant to share their thoughts or ask for help," Hassell added.
Anonymous employee surveys can certainly ease these fears, but if you want direct, honest input from your employees, the trick is to make sure you're asking the right questions in the right ways.
"There is an art to asking questions, and doing it well can make employees feel empowered and valued, rather than interrogated, while giving managers information and insight to help drive success," Hassell said.
Mastering this art begins with creating a culture of trust. Respond to your employees' feedback to make sure they are comfortable sharing their thoughts, Hassell said. Even if you can't do anything about the situation, acknowledging the comment means you are listening, which makes the employee feel heard and valued.
Niu also advised holding regular town hall-style meetings where your employees can ask you anything.
"You may get some hard questions, but don't shy away from any of those," Niu said. "Incorporate company values when asking for feedback."
Making employee feedback part of your everyday operations does take some effort, and Hassell reminded leaders that it starts at the top.
"Management must clearly spell it out as a company goal," Hassell said. "Find quick and painless ways to check in with employees on a regular basis and ask questions that spark valuable conversation. Like any habit, implementing an employee feedback system may take a bit of time to get used to. But the payoff is big — empowered employees, increased productivity and extraordinary innovation."