In an April 2019 episode of podcast This American Life, host Ira Glass begins the show with a story from David Kestenbaum, producer and managing editor.
“David, so, what problem was this supposed to solve?” Ira asks.
“The teachers were trying to get the kids to stop tattling,” David replies.
They go on to describe one teacher’s solution to the overwhelming and time-consuming number of “tattles” she receives from her 20 students, each between three and four years old, every day. Her solution? Attach a large red phone to the classroom wall and instruct kids to, “Tell it to the Tattle Phone.” Immediately and enthusiastically, they comply.
“Eli told me a lie,” one says.
“Nathan farted in my face and I said yuck and he didn’t say ‘scuse me!” another complains.
“[The tattle phone] gave the teachers the break they were looking for,” David says. And the kids enjoy it, too, at first.
“One girl told me talking to the tattle phone felt like eating ice cream,” David says, adding that simply voicing a complaint is sometimes all you need. “If you just release the fact of the injustice into the world, it can feel better. But not always.”
Eventually, the kids’ use of the phone begins to slow.
“It’s not working,” one asserts. “It did not work. It didn’t stop Oggie from pinching me.”
“Sometimes you want more than just to speak,” David concludes. “You want actual justice.”
Certainly, the workplace is a far cry from the inner-workings of a pre-kindergarten classroom, but this challenge of finding justice — of turning feedback into action — is nuanced, complex, and just as important to adults as it is to kids.
Unfortunately, it is not solved by simply installing a tool for people to voice their complaints.
It’s about what you do with the information you receive.
Feedback without action can leave people feeling unheard, undervalued, or ignored. And just like that, something that begins with the best of intentions — asking your employees what they think — can actually become one of the most damaging things leaders can do to their culture.
To prevent the damage and avoid the backlash, organizations must turn feedback into action. Here’s how.
Gathering Feedback Is Only Step One
When given the opportunity, employees can deliver thoughtful, critical feedback and insights that have the potential to transform an organization for the better. Employers know the value of this data, and many forward-thinking companies provide a range of modern feedback mechanisms, from annual engagement surveys to weekly pulse checks, as increasingly accessible ways to stay connected with employees.
But it hasn’t always been this way.
“When I started studying this area a decade ago I found that over 60% of companies didn’t survey their employees at all, and those that did only did it once a year,” says Josh Bersin, author and founder of Bersin & Associates, on his blog.
Not only is Bersin one of the best-known thinkers and researchers on leadership and management, but he’s also a vocal advocate for turning feedback into action and empowering managers to help.
“The employee engagement industry started as a world for statisticians and industrial psychologists,” Bersin says. “We had a special little group in HR that developed these surveys, analyzed the results and tried to find the most highly correlated questions. Well, those days are over now: we have floods of feedback data (surveys and comments).”
The rise of feedback data is due, in large part, to the proliferation of user-friendly, accessible feedback tools, from annual survey platforms to weekly pulse-checks. These have allowed companies of any size — whether they have a dedicated team of statisticians and psychologists or not — to survey employees at any time.
Still, even if many organizations are using these methods to ask for regular feedback, the tools themselves are not enough. Quantity of feedback is one thing, and quality is another. Organizations must build a culture of feedback where employees feel encouraged to speak with candor.
Building Feedback-Rich Culture
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Stanford Professor and Executive Coach Ed Batista outlines the four essential elements of “Building a Feedback-Rich Culture”:
- Safety and Trust: People need to feel safe to share their thoughts and feelings, and have a sense of trust among their teammates.
- Balance: Not all feedback should be negative. Research shows that, “in the most successful [long-term relationships], the ratio of positive to negative interactions is 5:1 even in the midst of a conflict.
- Normalcy: Normalize feedback by integrating it into the day-to-day, rather than reserving feedback for scheduled, formal sessions and activities.
- Personal Accountability: Leaders need to model the behavior and “walk the walk,” dishing and receiving feedback regularly, honestly, and with humility.
“And this is harder than it sounds,” says Bersin. “We don’t want people to just complain, we want them to give each other constructive feedback, offer developmental advice, and share unbiased information that helps managers make the workplace better.”
It’s hard, but it can be done. For example, a 500-employee company, according to Hazel customer data, can collect over 600,000 words of high-quality, transparent feedback (or 2,400 pages, or roughly the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy twice) per year.
More and more, organizations are looking at both sides of the coin when it comes to soliciting feedback from their teams: they’re implementing effective tools, and they’re building feedback-friendly cultures. In the decades-long development of the employee engagement industry, we’re now in what Bersin calls, “Feedback 3.0.”
This is exciting news, and it establishes the necessary launchpad for action.
Use Organizational Action to Solve Org-Wide Problems
You are probably already actioning feedback in ways your employees appreciate and recognize — and in some critical ways they may not see. Perhaps you recently improved your benefits package based on employee requests, or you updated your team-building activities to better represent preferences.
These are fantastic initiatives, and if they sprang directly from employee feedback, we applaud you.
But company-wide initiatives — the kinds that cascade from the top-down — are only part of the solution. What about when your employees express that they’d like to have more regular career development conversations or get more clarity around their team’s goals? What if some team members experiencing inter-personal conflict? Or having a few bad weeks in a row?
Sadly, no organization can move fast enough to address individual and team-level challenges in an efficient and timely manner. Centralized, top-down action is essential to solving global issues, but it’s remarkably ineffective for addressing localized, personal concerns.
“What I suggest you do is think about this as a holistic problem, and get comfortable with the fact that all these issues are important. Rather than try to statistically correlate which matter most, let your employees speak up on all these topics,” says Bersin.
So how do you tackle team-level feedback? By empowering team-level leadership.
Drive Managers to Take Action on Team-Level Feedback
Managers are often the unsung heroes of the employee experience, and one of the critical groups companies can empower to make employees feel heard.
“If you can get managers to read the results of all these surveys and talk with people about them, positive results will happen,” says Bersin. More than that, they need to implement them and continuously turn feedback into action.
Empowering managers will help distribute the load of improving employee engagement. This means you can eliminate some of the bottlenecks that arise when only implementing feedback through top-down initiatives.
Importantly, though, this process does need to start at the top.
Senior leaders should model desired behaviors by listening to their own direct reports — often the managers as mentioned above — and actively developing based on their feedback. You need to cultivate a conscious, feedback-friendly culture like we discussed earlier, in which all levels of the organization feel safe to share their candid thoughts.
And, critically, companies need to empower managers with the tools to help them succeed.
If marketers have automation software, sales teams have their trusty CRM, and customer success teams rely on help desk platforms, what tools do managers have?
“Feedback systems need to become more intelligent, and send actionable nudges, alerts, advice, and tips to leaders and their teams,” says Bersin. These tools will help managers continually apply the feedback their teams give them, making them feel heard and like their input is valued.
And these tools can be transformational. “This moves the survey system far beyond that of a feedback tool into a true behavioral change system, based almost entirely on real-world data,” Bersin adds.
With a combination of effective tools, senior-level support, and a culture of growth and feedback, your managers will become the drivers of internal growth your company was looking for.
Thank you, next!
What’s better than empowering managers to drive action and improve company culture? Doing it again. And again. And again, learning as you go, rinsing and repeating forever.
Yes, this is an iterative process that requires an ongoing, mindful commitment to supporting your managers, gathering data, and revising your process. No, employees don’t need managers or companies to get it right overnight; they want progress and a commitment to continuous growth.
Plus, what works today might not work tomorrow. Needs and preferences change, and we must evolve to keep up. Don’t abandon your annual survey, but do use it as just one input among many. Give employees the opportunity and encouragement to speak their minds in a variety of ways throughout the week, month, and year. Show them that the things they say matter and make a difference.
Show them that their managers are listening.
“It’s time to move from ‘feedback to action’ in your entire employee engagement strategy, and look for tools and content that make this easy,” advises Bersin.
Because if a complaint falls into a Tattle Phone and no one is around to hear it except thousands of devoted This American Life listeners, it really doesn’t make a sound.