2020-09-02 HR Examiner article Michael Carden Open Feedback Works photo img AdobeStock 246121715 544x362px.jpg

“Open feedback encourages micro-actions. Responding to feedback at an individual level shows people that their feedback has value. And these micro-course-corrections can have a huge cumulative impact on the business.” - Michael Carden


Employee feedback is traditionally collected through anonymous surveys. A year ago we started working with a group of forward-thinking enterprises to trial open feedback. This is what we have learned.


Micro-actions make macro impacts


I met Arjun at one of our user sessions. He’d greeted me with a half smile before taking his seat at the back of the room, not quite looking me in the eye. After some coaxing, he explained that he was one of a huge team of developers at the insurance company. Of course. The beautiful space I was in had the feel of a hot startup, not a stuffy corporate office. Clearly a lot of thought had gone into designing an environment that would attract talent from the overheated developer marketplace.


Arjun then explained how the company’s employee feedback tool had worked out for him.


“We hot-desk and it’s first-in first-served. I drop my daughter off at daycare two days a week, and on those mornings I can’t always find a desk next to my squad. When I gave that feedback to [my manager] she was able to ensure on those days that someone else in my squad would secure a desk for me. It makes a big difference.”


Arjun’s story is a perfect example of an open feedback benefit that we’ve seen over and over throughout the year - the micro-action. Because feedback is attributed, action can be taken at a manager-employee level immediately – HR doesn’t have to be involved. These micro-actions accumulate to create a big impact on the enterprise.


More feedback, better insights


Our year of open feedback generated more usable comments than anonymous feedback did. People put more effort into writing feedback when their name is attached to it. And because feedback gets responded to, people are more likely to participate. But the raw numbers tell the story best. In three enterprise accounts where we can compare attributed feedback vs anonymous feedback, attributed feedback is generating 4x as much text.


This massive volume of text lets us apply machine intelligence to look for themes and trends. And that creates a huge opportunity for insights and actions at a macro level.


Michael Carden, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Member

Michael Carden, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Member

In the example of the insurance company, it turns out that Arjun’s experience wasn’t unique. In fact, our analysis found that within the very same office developers were 11% less happy with their physical work environment than other employees.


Theme extraction found that hot desking, while neutral in the general population, was the biggest driver of dissatisfaction in the developer cohort. Sub-themes of "not being able to sit with my squad," and "having to set up my workspace from scratch every morning" were commonplace and quantifiable.


Remember – we were not asking questions specifically about hot-desking. In this example we were encouraging freeform feedback on the physical work environment, and letting the volume of feedback combine with machine intelligence to uncover insights.


Given the effort the company had put into creating an environment attractive to developers, it was logical to take action from these insights: starting with the rethinking of universal hot-desking.


Employees are not concerned about anonymity, they are concerned about care and action.


Julia was explaining her work history: “I’ve been here since God was a little boy.” She’d worked in a rotation of different roles in this infrastructure client, landing in field service management. “I’ll tell you what my team always says about the survey. They say nothing ever changes.”


She went on to perfectly explain the failings of the previous (anonymous) employee feedback approach. “We don’t trust it. It’s lots of personal risk for little return. So there’s little effort going into it.”


“Everyone here knows that I’ll call a spade a spade. If I want you to know something I’ll tell it to your face.” There was plenty of laughter, “But really, if the only way you can get honest feedback is by gathering it anonymously, you’ve got big problems.”


We recently asked 150 senior HR leaders in large enterprises a number of questions on employee experience. HR leaders are a good proxy to understand EX as they themselves are often researching these topics in their populations. The most sensitive topic for feedback visibility was well-being. Even for well-being, the results are not what traditionalists expect. 2/3rds of respondents felt that employees would be comfortable sharing their well-being concerns with “someone they were close to at work.” Only just 10% felt that this kind of feedback should only be shared anonymously. It’s not that some topics are not to be openly shared, it’s that employees feel strongly about who they share feedback with.


Julia’s sentiment plays out in our polling. Most employees we talk to don’t feel strongly about anonymity. What they want is to feel comfortable ‘owning’ their feedback, to know that it will be taken seriously, and to know that it will lead to action.


The top requests are (in order):

  1. I want to know where my feedback goes, and who has seen it.
  2. I want my feedback acknowledged.
  3. I want my feedback to spark action sometimes.
  4. I want to be able to control who gets to see my feedback.

Importantly confidentiality and anonymity are not in the top 5.


A senior leader in one of our test companies summed the situation up succinctly:


“The goal is to build an environment where everyone feels comfortable giving and receiving feedback. Remember. Everytime you send an anonymous survey, you reinforce the idea that providing feedback is unsafe.”


Open Feedback needs to be deliberate


The biggest thing we have discovered is that you can’t treat the shift from anonymous feedback to open feedback as binary. You can’t just flick a switch.


Through this year we’ve gone through many iterations on transitioning employee cohorts to open feedback. These are the three biggest lessons.


  1. Start easy. Start by asking questions like “What are you most proud of in your work?” rather than “How do you feel about your future here?” Encourage the idea that feedback can be positive, optimistic and productive.

  3. Equip your leaders to deal with feedback. They may need some help, so be very deliberate. Feedback works best if it’s a conversation, and the best way to engage employees is if their leaders actively participate.

  5. Question design is significant. Questions shouldn’t bruise egos. They should focus on identifiable outcomes rather than behaviours. Ask questions that light the way for leaders: “Do you have clear objectives?” rather than opening their behaviors up to criticism: “My manager does a good job of explaining objectives.”


What we’ve learned from a year of open feedback


Open feedback encourages micro-actions. Responding to feedback at an individual level shows people that their feedback has value. And these micro-course-corrections can have a huge cumulative impact on the business.


Open feedback produces a lot more text, which can power much deeper insights.


When it comes to feedback, people want to see care and action more than they want anonymity.


Open feedback requires you to be very deliberate about question design. It’s not just an anonymous survey with names attached.


Does open feedback work in enterprises? Absolutely. It just requires preparation, education and a little courage. But then, so do most good things…


Learn more about creating an inclusive feedback culture with Joyous Open Feedback

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