How to get leadership buy-in for an employee feedback strategy
I occasionally see leadership teams that don't want to be involved in the employee feedback process. There are two main reasons why I see this being the case:
- They don’t think it's interesting, relevant or connected to them - If leaders don’t know how they can change something, they may become disconnected from the problem.
- Self-preservation - They care too much and are hurt by what they hear (so they protect themselves by pushing back).
Both situations are challenging, but it is possible to re-engage your leadership team and help them act on employee feedback.
Start by looking for the signals that leadership isn’t engaged
There are many signs that your leadership team is not engaged with your employee feedback. One of the most obvious ones is that they’re not paying attention or not doing anything with the results. Leaders may be in the meetings when the results are being presented but they’re not across what's being said or taking any accountability for it.
Often we see leaders that present a jaded or cynical view. They’re seeing the same results again and nothing has changed since last time. Whilst they’re involved in the process, they’re not champions of it. They’re trying to solve a million problems and they haven't made nearly as much progress as they would have liked in three months or even a year.
Some leaders aren’t even willing to take ownership for good feedback. If a company has an engagement score of 75% the leaders may focus in on the negative and retreat. It can be emotionally taxing to take ownership for the experiences of the 25%, so they don’t pause to celebrate the 75%.
If your leadership team has disengaged because they don’t feel employee feedback is relevant, make it personal for them
If you want to move a leadership team from disengaged to engaged, the first thing you have to do is connect the data to their own reality.
To do this, don’t just look at the specific questions in a survey - think about what the leader is accountable for. Whether it’s sales performance or a pending IPO, identify data that can inform their reality. By talking their language you can get their attention and show them how they can use the data. Once you have their attention, you then need to take them on a journey to show the power of ongoing engagement with employee feedback.
I recall watching the CEO of an organization look at his phone rather than listen to their feedback presentation. There was one set of demographics that stood out and HR explained that the data represented a company they’d just acquired. For the first time, the CEO perked up and talked about the exciting plans he had for that business.
Taking a closer look at the data, I told him that only a handful of that team was planning on being with the company in two years’ time. That immediately got the CEO’s attention as he realized the risks to his key investment. By connecting the data to something that was real to him we were able re-engage him in the process and open up a useful conversation about how they could address the issues.
If your leadership team has disengaged to protect themselves, show them it’s ok to be vulnerable
It’s ok for a leader to feel hurt by the feedback they’ve seen. They need to understand that it’s alright to be vulnerable - leaders need to own the good and the bad.
By holding up a mirror to themselves a leader can build trust. They can take accountability for what they see, even if it’s very painful to do. Your people don't want you to get up and tell them the best version of the truth, the want you to tell them what you actually see. Ultimately, your people need to know that you are listening.
Recently I had to deal with a situation like this, so I understand how hard it can be. In our last engagement survey, somebody said that they didn't think we were a Culture First company anymore. They believed we were focused on growth, revenue and numbers rather than building our own culture. This devastated me - that's not the company I want to build and I don't want anyone to have that experience.
My initial reaction was to pull away from the feedback and ignore it. But it was somebody's experience so it was important to validate that emotion. Because it was anonymous I had no context for the comment, but I shared it at our internal presentation and acknowledged the feedback.
Many people have since told me that it was good to see that I accepted the good and the bad. Often leaders feel like they have to twist the story to make it positive or they think people will become disengaged or cynical, when in fact it's the reverse. People just want to know that if something’s not working you’ll hear their feedback and deal appropriately.
To get the most value from your data it’s important to connect the feedback to real outcomes. It’s also important to be vulnerable (even though it’s not easy). Just like your people, an engaged leadership team needs to understand how feedback relates to them and how to deal with the full range of possible emotions that may arise through the process.