How should founders organize their thinking about feedback?
Just soliciting feedback is the most important part that I think people struggle with. Just the fact that you're asking for feedback, whether that's verbal, whether that's written, puts you in front of 75% of small businesses in the first place. It’s the fact that you actually care what the people around you think and what their insight is into how you can lead them better and how the organization can improve.
Think about the different levels of feedback. I could get feedback from my team. I could get feedback on my efficiency as a leader. I could get feedback on the benefits and compensation that I offer to them. Or I could get feedback on the work environment and the culture. All those things are different, right?
So, they don't necessarily need to come across in one survey. Some people are much more comfortable giving you verbal feedback than others, but giving people an actual survey once a year at a minimum will provide some of that feedback in writing — ideally anonymously — so that they can give you some real raw feedback.
Are people actually honest on surveys?
If somebody is reviewing me as a leader on a scale of one to five, on any particular topic, I always downgrade everything one level. So, if they say I’m a four out of five, they really mean a three out of five. But they're upgrading me because I'm their boss. I know they're not gonna be fully transparent. So, if you see something is a two or a three out of five, then that’s a massive red flag and we've gotta stop and dig into that.
No matter what you hear back, you have to actually do something with the feedback you get. Maybe you don't necessarily have to act on everything every teammate gives you.
For example, we just did a benefits survey with one of our clients asking about their benefits. The employees know they have a very rich benefits package, so the suggestions were things like sporting event tickets and free childcare, things that are a little bit more superfluous. They're just saying, hey, if you were gonna add more, here are some ideas. It wasn't necessarily a demand.
How should you handle your response as a leader?
Your response might be as simple as saying, “I heard you, Jennifer. This is why we're not gonna do that thing.” Or, “Here's why we don't do it that way. Here's why we do it this way. Here's what we can do to help you maybe to move that forward.”
When you start getting a little bit bigger at 25, 30, 40, 50 employees, it’s hard to respond individually. At that point, you give a collective address like: We got a ton of great ideas, here are the things we’re gonna act on, and here’s why. There were some great ideas we're not gonna act on, and here’s why. And there were a ton of other great things in there too that we really appreciate, and we want you to know that we heard it, and all your feedback is valued.
That’s helpful. Employees can feel like their input just goes into a black hole somewhere. And you don't know if it mattered.
Yeah, those are the perfect words for that. That’s what you don't want, and it’s the number one complaint whenever we go into an organization that has run surveys in the past.
How do you decide which feedback to address, especially if it’s a request you plan to deny?
It depends on the reason why you’re not going to do it. Sometimes you’ve already tried the ideas, and you know they don't work for x, y, or z reasons. Or you might let them go ahead and try the idea and fail, so they can learn from it. Then you explain why it didn’t work.
Sometimes it's a straight-up budget issue, right? For example, if people are asking for additional staff help, you might say that’s not an option, but explain that instead you’re automating some process or making some other adjustment.
How do you know whether to address things with the whole team or just management?
You have to break these things out into quadrants and know just how hot the issues are. For instance, feedback that people don't feel safe expressing their opinions in the workplace is a pretty hot issue that requires no budget to address. Hopefully, you've earned the right over the years to say, okay, this is a somewhat easy thing to tackle, and we’re going to work as a team to improve communication.
And for the record, communication is the number one thing people complain about on employee surveys 100% of the time. Never fails.
Do they mean the employer doesn’t explain decisions, doesn’t give feedback, doesn’t give direction — or is it just across the board?
If you had that answer, you'd be a billionaire, because, for every two people you add to the team, you have to communicate four times as much. So, as organizations grow, communication gets more and more challenging. No matter how many Slack channels you have, no matter how many emails you send, and no matter how many project management systems you use, people will always complain about communication.
So, you have to over-communicate, in the most sensitive way possible, without wasting people's time. And I always like to say, be transparent without transferring worry. If there's something that's just gonna make employees lose sleep tonight and they can't do anything about it, and it’s not gonna impact them in the foreseeable future, then I'm gonna keep that a little bit more closely guarded. I’ll let that be my problem to bear, not yours.
What about when the feedback feels personal to you as the founder?
Yeah, it will almost always feel personal. That's the first thing, because it's your business. You started it. You know, you own and operate it. You made the decision that got you into whatever the complaint or feedback is about. So, it's almost always gonna feel personal, which is when you have to have the discretion and maturity to take a step back and take a look at it and go, hey, is this valid feedback?
And don’t be so stuck in your ways that you just say, ‘This is the way I am, and this is the way the company is. And if you don't like it, don't work here.’ With that attitude, you're gonna lose top talent, and you're not gonna attract more top talent. You're not gonna grow your people. You're just gonna grow a bunch of followers, not a bunch of new leaders.
How do you become objective enough to assess the feedback in a way that's actually going to work for everybody?
You're hitting on a sensitive point. We’ve got everything from the narcissist and the insecure leader who's just going to immediately fall apart as soon as they see the feedback, to the person who will see it and tell everybody to piss off.
So, if you're unclear on how to act on it, you should sit down and talk to the individual. Or if it’s them that comes up with several people, understand that it is the reality, and talk with the group. Have a real, raw conversation where you're willing to accept feedback. Now, this does not become a tit-for-tat; you deliver your own feedback on the person or group at a different time.
What experiences taught you this is how you should do it?
I've just learned that the more I talk and the less I listen, the less happy everybody around me is. So, I found that by asking better questions, by being open-minded, I learn what makes people tick, what makes them comfortable, what puts 'em in a position to do their best work.
I understand that not everybody needs to be led the same. Not everybody works the same. Not everybody comes from the same place, has the same background, wants the same things out of life and work. So, if I try to paint with one broad brush, then I'm gonna fail and the team’s gonna fail.
How often do you solicit feedback from your team?
Team leaders do monthly one-to-one conversations with every teammate, asking: What can I do to remove obstacles from your way? What can I do to put you in a better situation to succeed? How happy are you in your role right now? We're looking to do more of that electronically as well, as we develop our custom app so people can also give more frequent, anonymous feedback.
Have you ever had feedback that you didn't want to accept?
Yeah, most of it [laughs]. But seriously, I think it's less about having feedback that you don't want to accept and more about understanding that you haven't clearly articulated something that you thought you had, or you hadn't clearly communicated the vision for the organization and why things are happening the way they are.
With most feedback, it is easy to get defensive. In our last survey, I was seeing terms like “drinking from a fire hose” and “we want you to notice how busy we are at this time of year.” Whereas sometimes my mindset is like, “Look, this is the busy season. Put on your big boys’ and girls’ pants, we're gonna ride.”
That mindset is not how everybody wants to be led, obviously. And I'm pretty sensitive to that, or I thought I was. In my desire to instill reality, I had overlooked some feelings in the process.
Since you can’t change the busy season, did you just change the way you talked about things?
That’s exactly it. People just wanted to feel seen for their efforts. Even though they knew it was what was expected, they knew it was what was gonna happen, they still just had to hear, “Hey, thank you and great job, this is appreciated. And we know the busy season is hard.” It didn't need to go much further than that.