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Employers can find ways to turn negative feedback to positive outcomes

Most employers consider feedback from employees necessary, but those employers might wonder if that feedback has to feel so much like a necessary evil. When the feedback employees have to offer is negative, it can be tough for employers to stomach. But more and more employers are realizing that even when it’s negative, feedback can be a catalyst for improvement. 

Recent research from Waggl, a company offering employers tools to survey employees, notes a shift in employer attitudes on negative feedback. The company’s survey of nearly 500 business leaders, human resources leaders, and consultants found that 97 percent believe that negative feedback from employees can be useful.

“We were surprised to see almost unanimous agreement that negative feedback from employees can be useful,” said Michael Papay, Waggl CEO. “Over the years, we’ve seen many instances of companies that have either ignored or attempted to eradicate negative feedback, usually with less than optimal results. But this data indicates that attitudes are shifting, with business and HR leaders alike becoming more open to candid feedback and more receptive about how to work with it to make their organizations stronger.”

Be open, not defensive
So just how can employers get the most from employee feedback even when it’s negative? Acknowledging the problem is a start, according to Brad Federman, chief operating officer and an employee engagement and performance management expert for F&H Solutions Group.

“Be prepared to talk about it in an open and authentic manner without being defensive,” Federman advises. “There’s an old Shakespearian quote, ‘there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ That quote holds the key to utilizing constructive feedback in a way that makes it successful.”

It’s natural for leaders to react negatively when employees point out problems, but the feedback may be just what the leaders need to hear, Federman says. “What you do with that feedback, or how you approach it, will turn it to either good or bad,” he says. “It’s actually an opportunity for an organization. You cannot fix what you do not know. You cannot change what you do not understand, and that feedback helps you learn.”

Surveys, conversations
Employee surveys are one way employers can collect employee feedback, but surveys need to be thoughtfully conducted. “When you send too many surveys or create surveys that are too long, you can create survey burnout,” Federman says.

Another problem with relying too heavily on major surveys is that “you have to wait until the next survey comes along to get more information,” Federman says. “So what we have seen from organizations is a shift to utilizing other sources besides the traditional, general survey that solicits feedback from employees.”

Federman says many organizations are using small, short “pulse surveys,” which consist of one or two questions sent out frequently to create ongoing feedback and ongoing focus on employee culture and engagement.

Another way employers are soliciting feedback is by changing the way they conduct meetings, Federman says. He’s seen clients shift from meetings where the conversations are usually one way to more two-way conversations focusing on areas that range from quality and safety, employee engagement, trust, culture issues, customer service, and more.

That switch to more two-way conversations allows organizations to do several things, Federman says.

  • On a regular basis they can support their culture.
  • They are able to give employees a call to action and make sure that everyone is focused on the core things to move the business forward.
  • They are able to then also get feedback from employees on a regular basis, and that two-way conversation becomes a part of the fabric of their culture. So employees feel more connected and no longer need an anonymous manner to drive feedback in the organization because they have other outlets.

Approaches to collecting, using feedback
Federman encourages employers to never ask a question to which they don’t want an answer. “I would also encourage them not to ask a question that they have no intention of addressing or fixing,” he says.

Federman also says to ask questions that have practical value and can lead to real actions. He warns against asking “loaded questions,” those that lead an organization to either a positive or negative answer. “We should not be leading our employees in one direction or the other,” he says. “We should be asking questions that allow employees to give us their unfiltered feedback.”

Federman also encourages employers to involve employees in efforts to collect feedback. He also suggests use an external source when implementing a survey. “Surveys are built so there is a confidentiality and anonymity to it,” he says. “When you administer a survey internally, employees cannot trust that there will be confidentiality, and it affects the feedback you get.”

Federman also urges employers to tie changes directly to the feedback. “One of the biggest mistakes organizations make is they respond to feedback, but they don’t tell employees what they are doing and many employees don’t recognize efforts as directly related to their feedback,” he says.

Although negative feedback can lead to positive change, it won’t unless the employer is prepared to have conversations about the feedback, Federman says. He suggests having skilled facilitators managing conversations on feedback if there are significant problems in an organization.

Federman says he is seeing more employers open to negative feedback from employees, but in some cases there’s more talk than action. “Many organizations have a desire to do it, but they lack the ability to execute on the idea,” he says. “In order to pull that off, you need leadership that is self-aware, confident, comfortable, and authentic and can respond productively in the moment.”