When you're running a company, there are independent sources of information that you rely on. The more independent they are, the better the quality of information. For example, your opinion of your own products is less reliable than what your customers think of your products and services. High quality customer information is probably the richest source of data in running any company. Customers are paying youand they have very little incentive to hold back or give falsely positive feedback. You might get this feedback through informal surveys, internet sources of review (like Yelp), or even customer visits depending on the industry you’re in. Overall, objective customer feedback is typically not that hard to obtain.
The second most important source of information is your employees. Your employees have an incredible wealth of information that can help you run your business better. This information includes the general happiness and demeanor of the staff, feedback for you on whether you’re effectively running the company, information on potential internal problems at the company, suggested ways to improve, issues that customers have been voicing, etc. This data source is hugely underutilized and untapped. To some extent this is understandable; the fact of the matter is that getting good quality data from your employees is very difficult.
The wall between you and your employees is profoundly thick, even if you don’t think it is. In reality, the employer-employee relationship renders the employee in a role of subservience (even if this role is only present in the mind of the employee). Aside from this, employees rely on you for their livelihood, so they are less likely to speak truthfully. Non-candid feedback is meaningless, and will not help you run your company more effectively.
This employer-employee barrier exists, and breaking through is very difficult. I'm not sure you can ever get completely truthful data because of it. But your employees have too valuable a treasure trove of data to not attempt to break this wall down. Here are few ways to try:
1. Cast a wide net.
If you're trying to figure out if employees are happy, you wouldn't rely on two or three people's opinion, right? Do light audits of as many people as possible. Assume that at least two thirds of employee feedback will not be candid. Have a system in place for auditing a significant percentage of your employee base. Go wide, so that you have a good sample size of data.
2. Focus on them, not you.
Ask your employees a lot of questions about their plans for the future, and what they want. Talk a lot about their goals and their plans. You might not ask, "Are you happy?" You might ask, "Where do you see yourself in five years? What do you see in the future for your family? What parts of your role can be enhanced to make your job experience better?" It’s amazing what you can learn, and how your company stands to benefit, if you take a sincere interest in the wellbeing, goals and ambitions of your employees. You may find out that they can help the company in ways that you didn’t begin to imagine.
3. Set up a system of anonymous feedback.
At our company, we have a suggestion box, and we do anonymous surveys. Clearly, people are going to be more comfortable if they're anonymous. We need to accept their discomfort as a given. There are websites such as Glassdoor that provide such a service; however, I would imagine that the people who go to those sites are not necessarily a reliable sample (and in many cases are not current employees). Internal polling is much more effective in my opinion.
4. Resist the urge to be your employee's friend.
This is a mistake that I personally made for years. When you're building a company, it's natural to want to build loyalty and want to be close to people. After all, we're social creatures. My logic was: "if they're friends, they'll tell me things, and it will be easier to get the data." Not true, in my personal experience. The wall still exists, and you'll undermine the frustrating but ultimately necessary organizational structure of your company.
There's always a lingering sense of discomfort in the employer-employee relationship. I've experienced both sides of the equation, and felt the discomfort in both cases. This feeling cannot necessarily be solved out, only minimized. As long as the feeling exists, it will be difficult to get totally candid feedback. However, you must be vigilant in soliciting this feedback. When I was younger, I thought all you needed to worry about was customer satisfaction.
With experience, I'm realizing that employee satisfaction and happiness are equally important and will trickle to the shareholders, customers and every other aspect of your business.