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Don't Let Employee Feedback Depress You

How to make the most of negative suggestions your staffers make, and improve your company.
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I still get depressed when I read my employee surveys.

That's right. I, Paul Spiegelman, CEO of the happiest place in Bedford, Texas, get bummed when I read feedback from our annual employee questionnaire.

Sure, there are lots of nice things said about the company and our leadership. We're a nine-time "best place to work" winner.  But my eyes and my heart go straight to the negative comments.  How can people say that?  Haven't they seen all the stuff we've done for them?  They just don't get it. 

Then, after a day, my emotions settle and I realize a few things.  First, I'm not a terrible person. Second, I should probably be proud of my perfectionism and desire to make everything good. Third, and most importantly, they're right.  Things are never perfect and not everyone is happy.  That's what makes the world go round.  Business and life is a journey, not a destination.  We need to feel good about what's going right, and continue to focus on how we can improve. 

So now, I stop looking at employee surveys with handkerchief in hand.  I've learned over the years how to channel that emotion and energy into our coworkers, to get them engaged in the process of improving things, and make sure coworkers get credit they deserve for the great ideas they implement.   

Here's four ways to get the most out of your employee surveys to make your business better:

1. You need to ask for feedback, often

If you're not asking your employees how you're doing, you're missing the boat.  Make sure you're really listening, too. Implement employee ideas and give them credit for it.  Like J.W. Marriott used to say, "The seven most important words in business are…'I don't know. What do you think?'" 

An annual survey isn't enough.  What informal methods do you have of gaining feedback?  At the Beryl Companies, we have monthly chat n' chews in which 12 people from different teams join us with the sole purpose for us to ask them, "How's it going?"  That's enough to get a great conversation started.  We also have an intranet site called "Ask Paul" that allows people to send me anonymous questions.  My commitment is to publish my answer to the whole company within 24 hours.  While I like the strategic questions, I'm just as likely to get a question about the broken toaster in the kitchen.  That bothered me at first, but then I realized that a key to getting the most out of employees is to address what matters to them. It may be different than what I would typically find to be important, but if it is important to employees, I must listen.

2. Make something happen

Asking for feedback is only one third of the battle. If you ask, you better be accountable and be prepared to assign resources to the project.  At Beryl Companies, we identify the five lowest-scoring questions from our annual survey.  Then we split our leaders and managers (about 70 in all) into five cross-functional groups, and each is assigned a question.  Each team must do further research into what's behind the low score (through, for instance, informal focus groups), come up with an actionable plan, execute on the plan, and market the results to the rest of the company.  Along the way, I find the teams take on ownership, build stronger relationships, and get to see measurable results. 

3. Get credit for what you've done

One of the questions on our annual survey is, "Please rate how well we listened to your comments from last year and implemented positive change."  For several years I was surprised that that question received one of our lowest scores.  The management team and I got defensive and started putting together long lists of things we accomplished to try to prove that we were really listening.  Then we realized we were simply doing a bad job at communicating the changes we made.  So we created an ongoing internal branding campaign to make sure that everyone knew about the steps we took in response, how they tied back to the survey, and how employees were already benefitting.  Voila!  Scores giving us credit for improving things went way up. 

4. Take it personally…with a grain of salt                       

I can't help it.  I still focus on the negative comments when I read employee surveys.  But after a day passes, I realize that a) I probably know who wrote them, b) they just don't understand or c) they are making really valuable points I should pay attention to. Don't forget, when critical comments come in from employees, whether they're right or wrong, the employees cared enough to share their ideas with you. Sure, you'll have some complainers who can't stand the blue carpet, but even the most caustic of comments might have value. Don't be afraid to liberally salt those survey responses as you consume them for the good of your company.   

I have found my people are telling me exactly what I need to know to make our company better. You too can open your ears, follow their tips, and your employees will do the rest.

Last updated: Jan 25, 2012

PAUL SPIEGELMAN | Columnist | CEO of BerylHealth

Paul Spiegelman is the chief culture officer at Stericycle and founder and former CEO of BerylHealth. He also co-founded the Small Giants Community with Inc. editor-at-large Bo Burlingham. You can read more at PaulSpiegelman.com.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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