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5 ways to get honest feedback from employees

5 min read


Seeking honest feedback from employees isn’t for for cowards. Honesty in the workplace can be daunting, especially for managers or leaders who haven’t always been open to feedback.

But you’ll find that the results are worth it. Here are five tips to help you get the feedback you’re looking for from your employees.

Be what you want to get

If your company culture has been marked by suspicion or a lack of transparency, that needs to change before you can expect useful feedback. Employees won’t be honest if they were punished for it or if they feel like you aren’t honest with them.

Even if you do feel that you have a culture of transparency at your organization, check to see whether leaders and employees are really on the same page. Leaders may feel they’re being transparent, but information may be delivered in such a way that employees are cynical about its intentions.

For example, I once worked with a manager who talked the talk of openness and transparency, but her actions had an opposite effect. She often used employee feedback to bully and punish other employees. This behavior created an environment where employees became reluctant to share their true thoughts about the work, team and environment.

Share the strategy

You’re much more likely to get honest feedback if you’re clear about what you’re going to do with it. Have a specific strategy for acting on the information you get from employees — and share that with them so they can hold you accountable. This accountability can make leaders nervous, but it’s vital to commit to respecting the answers you get when you ask people to be honest.

One of the best employee-engagement campaigns I led in my career was at ING (Voya). What made it great was working with the CEO to develop a survey campaign plan. His commitment to stating why we were doing a survey, what he hoped to learn and what he planned to do after getting the feedback resulted in an over 90% response rate.

Stop the spin

We’ve all participated in employee surveys that deliver results that don’t seem to reflect the reality around us. When leaders take the information from surveys and use them to bolster actions they were going to do anyway, that only boost cynicism among employees. Leaders must be ready to accept the honest feedback they get and not look for ways to diminish or dismiss it if it turns out to be something they didn’t want to hear in the first place.

I once worked on an employee survey campaigns in which the C-suite only wanted to communicate the positive results and ignore the clear and perceived opportunity areas for the company. Employees talk. and most of them knew there were big opportunity areas, but to spin up only good news demonstrates a culture and leadership not willing to own the good and the bad.

Ask explicitly

Too many companies tip their hand when they request feedback. They may ask too indirectly, making employees guess at what the employer is actually trying to find out. They may ask in such a way that the answer desired is clear. They may tack on a request for feedback at the end of an email so long that employees never see it, leading employers to think that there’s no feedback to be had.

Short, quick questions that provide a clear way to answer, whether it’s a scale or open-ended, are the best way to get the feedback you can use. Clear questions lead to clear answers, so ensure the questions make sense and aren’t leading.

Lead with what and why you are asking.

Don’t overthink it

Many companies feel like asking for feedback must be a huge formal process for it to mean anything. This usually ends up making people feel anxious, which doesn’t always lead to honesty. Instead of saving up all your questions for a once-a-year major event, go for pulse questions that give you a snapshot into how your employees are feeling right now — and that can give you a path to make the small adjustments they need to do good work.

One of the biggest lessons I learned over the years is not to let things pile up before you take action. This includes asking for input and feedback from employees. I remember the days of the annual 100-plus-question employee survey that tried to capture feedback on every facet of the employee experience. Today’s workplace and workforce is time-starved, and insights are needed more quickly to make business decisions.

As you can see, it takes courage to ask for honesty. But without honest feedback from your employees, leaders can’t make the changes that will lead to better engagement and a better bottom line.

Chris Powell is the CEO of BlackbookHR, a software company on a mission to create more engaged and connected workplaces and communities. He previously served as executive vice president of human resources for Scripps Networks Interactive (HGTV, DIY, Food Network, Cooking Channel, Travel Channel, et al.), as vice president of human resources for the global financial services company ING, and in various corporate HR roles at Marriott International.