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How to Run a Meaningful Employee Feedback Process

By Nancy Bach - May 11, 2018

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A critical component of operational excellence (OpEx) is gathering employee feedback. This feedback provides unique perspectives and insight into your organization that you can’t find elsewhere. It may include positive, negative, or neutral comments. Regardless of its leanings, use the information to make your organization better and more efficient.

Employee feedback can help you implement many positive changes within an organization, such as reducing inefficiency, reducing operational risks, reducing costs, increasing productivity, improving morale, and influencing culture change.

A common challenge for many businesses and organizations is figuring out how to gather feedback from their employees and how to use it once they get it.

Methods of Getting Feedback

The areas where feedback is desired are discussed by the leadership team and defined for the organizational needs. Typically employers look at satisfiers (such as employee recognition and compensation) and dissatisfies (stress and compensation!) as well as real-time issues (such as progress on a specific project).

Once focus areas are identified, you can use many methods to gather feedback.

  • Surveys give breadth and define initial lines of inquiry. These are often measurable using Likert scales. This measurability allows the organization to identify developing trends by administering the survey over time, e.g. quarterly using fractional workforce samples. Often surveys encourage participants to provide written comments as well scaled responses.
  • Focus groups allow deeper dives on particular issues and opportunities. This can be one-time or ongoing. Some leaders have weekly breakfast meetings with rotating small groups of people.
  • One-on-one meetings are also valuable for exploring specific issues. Have an “open-door policy” and implement leader standard work to ensure open time is scheduled. State and ensure that there will be no repercussions for this discussion.
  • “Suggestion boxes” are generally used to gather process improvement ideas, but they can also be used to gather anonymous input on anything.

One useful approach to truly understanding feedback is to use a survey to identify general areas of concern, followed by focus groups or one-on-ones to dig deeper for specific details.

Manage the Feedback Process

Soliciting employee feedback can sometimes do more harm than good. If employees are asked (or forced) to give feedback, which then disappears into a black box, they may develop unrealistic expectations or resentment. Ideally, feedback gathering incorporates effective communication making the process transparent. Include these key components:

  1. Explain why feedback is being gathered.
  2. Explain what the feedback gathering process will be.
  3. Ensure anonymity (if appropriate) and no negative repercussions for critical feedback.
  4. Explain what the follow-up process will be. Don’t make unrealistic promises.
  5. Communicate findings.

Getting meaningful feedback comes with several caveats. First, if participants perceive that feedback might be used against them, they may provide inaccurate, too positive feedback. Likewise, if they have a grudge, all their responses might be negatively skewed because of those bad feelings. Third, participants’ apathy might roll into the process; for example, on a survey, they don’t bother to read questions but simply check random boxes.

One of the best ways to counter these concerns is to make the process experiential. Focus groups and one-on-ones help encourage people to speak out about specific concerns and engage at a greater depth.

Process the Feedback

Generally, feedback comes in two forms: scaled measures and personal comments. You need to turn this data into useful information.

The scaled measures (Likert scale) provide a quantified means for comparative analysis. You may look at a particular unit’s responses over time or a comparison between units.

Personal comments need to be sorted. Consider two approaches:

  • Identify a set of organizational themes and place individual comments in the appropriate categories.
  • Sort the individual comments using an affinity diagram approach and then name the themes.

In some cases, these themes will indicate systemic patterns of behavior, such as leadership inaccessibility or mixed messaging.

From this sorted data, prioritize themed areas or specific issues for follow-up focus based on appropriate criteria such as topic with the broadest concern, an area with most serious impact, or quick fixes for initial success. Maintain all data for continuing follow-up after the first wave of actions.

Manage the Follow-up Process

The follow-up process should actually be defined, at least roughly, before the feedback is gathered. This includes items such as how the data will be analyzed, what level of resources will be made available for actions, how follow-up activities will be tracked, and who will be responsible for coordinating overall efforts.

One key to success in the follow-up step is to use root cause analysis to understand underlying issues rather than simply acting impulsively to individual bits of feedback. For example, several people might mention a specific safety issue. In addition to taking immediate action to fix this hazard, root cause analysis might indicate the need to implement organization-wide safety programs, such as process safety reviews before equipment installation or a lockout-tagout process. In the opposite direction, the comment “Management doesn’t care about safety” should trigger a further investigation to understand and address any specific real-time safety hazards along with overall or individual behavioral concerns.

The second essential element of the follow-up process is creating specific accountability for actions: Who will do what by when? Without that accountability, feedback follow-up tends to fall away because teams are focused on delivering day-to-day output. This set of follow-up actions should be visible to all participants to close the loop on their expectations for the process. Just as in other OpEx efforts, the feedback follow-up process can use a Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle.

Even harder-to-measure actions require this systematic follow-up process. Soft metrics for systemic behavior gaps or leading indicators can be developed and monitored, accompanied by peer or supervisor review and validation.

Internalize the Process

Employee feedback and follow-up should not be seen as a distraction or extra work, but rather as a gift. Remember that people operating within a system or process have a tremendous impact on outcomes, so this feedback is extremely valuable for understanding the process. Data and follow-up should be folded into the organization’s larger improvement vision, strategy, and tactical plans.

Contact EON for more information on employee feedback benefits and techniques, or to learn more about how to increase operational excellence within your organization.

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