Employee engagement is difficult to measure and even harder to directly connect to bottom line results, but it’s critical to success for all organizations. The traditional way of assessing employee engagement, the employee survey, is dying. This is being replaced with direct and anonymous feedback as a way to gain insight into what’s helping and hindering your employees’ level of engagement. Services like Glassdoor and other new apps are springing up. Josh Bersin wrote a comprehensive post about feedback being the new killer app. Will feedback apps prove to deliver real value, or will this just be the flavor of the next few years that will also ultimately fail? The answer probably has less to do with the apps and feedback and more to do with how we solicit, evaluate, and act on the feedback.
Customer Feedback Loops and Employee Feedback Loops
One area some organizations have gotten smarter about feedback is with customer feedback loops. Customer feedback is of course also critical to the success of organizations. However, there are some definite challenges with collecting customer feedback. Customers are not very good at articulating what they want and as humans, we’re not very good at hearing what customers are saying. In both cases we have natural biases that get in the way and several other behavioral limitations. We cover all this in more detail in our post on customer feedback loops.
We can extend this line of thought to employee feedback. One of the challenges in getting feedback is that we, as employees, aren’t very good at understanding what makes us happy and engaged. It also changes frequently. And if we’re hearing that feedback, we’re also not naturally good at really listening and understanding the feedback. Here’s a full list of the cognitive biases that get in the way of giving and properly understanding feedback.
So how do you get around this? One way is to get better at soliciting, evaluating, and checking understanding on feedback.
- Soliciting: We’re highly sensitive to priming and context. Ask the right question(s) and you’ll get better much better answers.
- Evaluation: Introduce contradictory points of view to challenge the assumptions you make about the feedback. You can also train people to recognize cognitive biases. Just being aware of them delivers some improvement.
- Complete the feedback loop: Let the feedback submitter know how you intend to act on that feedback. It gives an opportunity to clarify. It also reinforces that giving feedback is a good thing and leads to change.
This diagram above describes the classic systems model of the positive feedback loop.
But, in our case, this feedback loop isn’t describing a scientific or economic system (the traditional domains of feedback loop theory) but rather, one where your employees feel like they are actively participating in their work — and further encouraging that sentiment.
One form of the feedback loop model involves four distinct factors that, all told, explain how an employee’s feedback (or input) is transmitted and then returned back to him/her in the form of a reaction that in turn, spurs more of the originating feedback.
For input, read feedback. By generating an idea on an employee feedback platform, the first action is taken to trigger the cycle of the feedback loop.
With the idea introduced, it now heads to the process stage where it is presented by the feedback platform for votes and comments from colleagues. This gives an opportunity to introduce conflicting viewpoints or other clarifications that the feedback is felt universally. This can also help deal with confirmation bias on the part of the person evaluating the feedback because there’s far more context and the community support is much harder to dismiss or shape towards the evaluator’s preconceived beliefs.
The evaluator provides a response to let everyone who’s contributed to the feedback that it’s under consideration and how they’re approaching it. Or that it’s been accepted and is moving ahead or has been implemented. In some cases, the feedback is declined or dismissed, but always with a reason why. The reason is important as this completes the feedback loop and allows people to disagree and further clarify, or add to how the feedback is taken and potential solutions implemented.
This confirmation and reinforcement for employees acts as an amplifier, telling them that their ideas are valued, so keep them coming! As a side effect, it also sends them a clear positive message that their voices and thoughts matter in the workplace, which is a major driver of employee engagement.
For a longer look at how feedback loop models apply to business, check out this article.
Actively looking for feedback loops (“closed loop thinking”) is an important activity in systems thinking, because feedback loops are what cause a system to change its behavior over time (and very often in unexpected ways).
Ultimately though, this only provides a feedback loop on the feedback itself. It’s an important step in the right direction, but the ultimate feedback loop is understanding the impact on bottom line results. This is incredibly difficult to asses, but not impossible. This post on using the service-profit-chain as a model for understanding the ROI of employee engagement is one way to do it. Where engagement has clear links to customer loyalty, it may be worth the time and effort to understand the correlation and develop baselines for the links in the chain.
There’s also another method that is a lot easier. It’s not a direct link to bottom line results, but it’s a step closer. It’s by having a feedback loop that’s focused on providing feedback for key business objectives. Employee engagement is defined as the discretionary effort that an employee puts toward his/her job. One way to measure this is by understanding contributions that the employee makes in the form of ideas, suggestions or feedback to improve results in key areas defined by the business. For example: cost cutting; improving the customer experience; or maximizing growth. We’ve seen organizations make significant shifts in what and how much employees were engaging in these topics through conscientious efforts on the part of leadership to communicate and get buy-in from employees on the importance of these topics to the organization and to their work. We’ve also seen a correlation between turnover and the amount of feedback employees provide, which makes sense. An employee providing very little feedback on improving the organization, or on key objectives, likely isn’t thinking long-term with the organization.
Feedback can be invaluable in helping build an engaged culture, but you also need to take steps to make sure you’re influencing the quality of the feedback, how it gets evaluated and making sure you close the feedback loop – both on the feedback itself, but also on the key business priorities you most hope engagement will influence.