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Techniques To Gain Valuable Employee Feedback

December 1, 2009 by Ruth Gmehlin, Partner, Trillium Teams Inc

Do you really value what your employees think? Can you honestly say that you ask your employees for their input or feedback on a regular basis to see how your team or organization is doing? At Trillium Teams, managers often approach us to facilitate team sessions to help them deal with a difficult situation or a specific challenge they are facing. We strongly believe that the solutions to many of these team and organizational challenges reside within the group. Think about it; team members are like a panel of experts, they know more about their challenges than anyone else because they live and breathe them every day. The trick is, getting at this information, creating a realistic plan for improvement and follow through. This article will provide you, the manager, with two options to help get at these answers with your team.

The Key Role of the Manager

Quite simply, the manager is the organizational culture and the most powerful person in an employees work life. Employees do not leave organizations they work for, they leave the manager they report to. Research clearly shows that manager behaviour is a key predictor of the bottom line of an organization. Managers directly have an impact on employee commitment, prescription drug use, stress leave, absenteeism, job satisfaction and therefore client satisfaction, and retention.

The manager plays a key role in the success of an organization because of their capability to harness the skills, experience and abilities of their staff. A supportive manager who recognizes the value of, and is able to capitalize on, their employees to create the solution to team and organizational challenges, is priceless.

Technique #1: Team Feedback

If you are looking for a group technique to use at a team meeting to gain honest and valuable feedback from your team we would recommend the Fishbowl Technique. Using this technique is a great way for the manager to learn about the work challenges that affect everyone on the team, and suggestions on how to solve these.

The fishbowl technique is a useful facilitation tool to get at the diverse perspectives within the group. As well, this exercise forces everyone to truly hear perspectives of others, which will then serve as the platform for dialogue. Once everyone can agree to what the team challenges are, and what is realistically within their control, a plan can be created to start to solve the issues.

Here is how it works:

  • Select your topic (for example: workload) and email all participants with this a few days prior to the scheduled meeting to give everyone the opportunity to think it over and collect their thoughts
  • At the meeting, arrange four chairs either in front of the group or in the middle, to create a Fishbowl
  • Either select or ask four people to volunteer to discuss the topic
  • As the manager, you introduce the topic, ask questions and keep the discussion flowing
  • For 10-15 minutes, ask as many questions about the topic as possible with the goal in mind to let everyone hear the different perspectives on the topic
  • There should be a scribe noting down the main points of the discussion on a flip chart or whiteboard
  • The audience outside the fishbowl listens to the discussion, they are not able to comment or ask questions
  • After the allotted time is up, ask four new volunteers to participate
  • In the next round, you can ask similar questions, new questions, or ask for solutions to the challenges mentioned by previous participants
  • There can be as many rounds to this exercise as needed and time allows
  • Your role, as the manager, is to facilitate the conversation. It is very important that you listen and do not answer questions or give solutions because the goal is to gain insight and feedback from the team
  • Upon completion of the exercise, sum up what you have heard. We recommend you reserve all comments for a later time. This will give you and everyone else to digest what has been discussed first.

There are many variations of this exercise, but the main point to keep in mind is the end result you are looking for. If you, as the manager, are interested in participating as a member of the team, then we recommend having a neutral third party facilitate this exercise. On average you can run an effective fishbowl for 15 people in 90 minutes; however, the timing of the exercise depends on the situation, how many participants involved and the nature and number of challenges to be discussed.

Technique #2: Individual Employee Feedback Interviews

The second employee feedback technique seems deceptively simple, and can be an extremely effective manner for gaining valuable employee feedback to help build a better team or organization. Conducting focused individual employee feedback interviews is a very powerful tool. These interviews are not to be a conversation and are best conducted following a set template. Here are the steps necessary to conduct effective and valuable employee feedback interviews:

  • Define the reason and objective for holding the feedback interviews. Example objective: How can we make Company X the workplace of choice?
  • Create the list of questions you would like answered during the interview. Remember to keep it short, simple and relevant. An example question list:
    1. What is working well?
    2. Suggestions for how we can build on this?
    3. What could be better?
    4. Suggestions for how we can improve this?
  • Write a brief script to use at the beginning of each interview to ensure consistency and neutrality. Points to consider:
    1. Briefly describe why you are undertaking these interviews, what led you to this point
    2. Briefly explain what you plan to do with the content from all the interviews
    3. Set proper expectations about the confidentiality of the conversation
    4. Conduct the interview, probe as necessary
    5. When completed, re-iterate the purpose of the interview, what you plan to do with the content of all the interviews and thank them for their time

Next Steps: What Do I Do With the Feedback?

Now that you have received the feedback you were looking for, what do you do with the information? The key focus should be that you act on the information. It could be in the form of an off-site retreat where the team creates concrete action plans to address the specific challenges. Or it could be a follow up meeting where you communicate to the team the general results of the fishbowl technique or one-on-one interviews and inform them of the status of each item. There are three important elements to remember, as the manager, in communicating to the team.

Be honest. This may require you to shift your mind set about your role as a manager. To exhibit the strength and confidence to tell the truth, allow yourself to be vulnerable in front of your direct reports and admit you do not have all the answers.

Be as transparent as possible. Be open and honest with your employees about what the current situation is. Give them the overview of what where things stand from your perspective, what your concerns are, what alternatives you see and let them understand why and how you make decisions.

Be sure to set proper expectations. Many of the challenges and concerns that may have come up are actually just improper perceptions of the situation. It may be time for you to reset the proper expectations with the team on certain items.

In Conclusion The valuable feedback and insights you, as a manager, will gain from running either one of these exercises can help reorient team priorities and form the basis for a plan of implementation to successfully address your challenges. Most importantly, employees will feel compelled and empowered to be part of the team, part of creating the organizational culture and part of the solution!