If you’re a people manager, does this story sound familiar?
A conscientious manager at a client firm took time to prepare, as usual, for a quarterly touch-base with one of her employees. The manager asked thoughtful questions, fostered dialogue and they exchanged feedback.
The manager thought the meeting was a success. The employee did not – and soon turned in his resignation. What happened?
In the eyes of the employee, empathy and advice were not enough – what the employee wanted was to see his feedback translated into meaningful change, proving that the company valued him and that his voice was being heard. Whether real or perceived, the lack of action was the catalyst to pursue another job.
Never before has there been a stronger need for leaders to engage with and actively listen to their employees’ thoughts, opinions and concerns – and take action. Only when this is done can a culture of trust and mutual respect be built – both key drivers of a healthy organization. It’s why there are so many employee surveys and feedback sessions that give people the chance to have a voice, say what’s on their mind, and share their concerns and hopes for the future.
Through our experience, we’ve identified three common scenarios where leaders must take the time to listen and act on feedback to increase trust with employees, create strong psychological safety, and ultimately, positively impact the business’ bottom line.
Scenario 1: The leadership team believes “we know best”
The Situation: This is a common scenario that we see play out again and again. There’s a group of tenured C-Suite leaders who truly believe they know what’s best for their company and their employees. And in many cases, they do – they have access to sensitive or confidential information that informs decision making, they have years of experience, and they know what’s in the best interest of their people and the business.
But for one client, when it came time to decide whether to return to the office, they opted to bring employees back full-time despite employee surveys and feedback overwhelmingly showing that people were happier with flexibility and were more productive at home.
The solution: To better understand the decision-making process and why leaders were so unreceptive to employee feedback, we used the Predictive Index tool. This allowed us to understand the different personality profiles within the leadership team and determine how to tailor communications and deliver messages that would have strong impact.
For emotionally engaged leaders, we shared anonymized, but unedited, employee stories to elicit empathy. This helped those leaders to understand why continuing to work from home not only made their employees work lives better, but their personal lives too.
For the leaders who had lower emotional engagement, we used a data-based approach that focused on the impact to the business, such as an employee’s intention to stay if their flexibility needs were not met. This was supplemented with a bottom-line dollar amount that showed how much the organization was losing to employee turnover.
The Result: By tailoring the messaging to personality types, the leadership team truly listened to employee feedback and reconsidered their stance. Employees were given the flexibility they needed, which decreased employee attrition and resulted in a more engaged and productive workforce.
Scenario 2: The leadership team doesn’t take responsibility
The Situation: When the C-Suite gets together to review employee feedback, reflect on what’s working well, and discuss areas of concern, a pattern sometimes emerges. Some leaders take the feedback personally and become defensive. Some deflect and try to find excuses for results and change the subject. Some even attempt to blame others or outside influences for anything that feels uncomfortable.
These are all natural, expected reactions to hearing difficult feedback. But for one client, defensiveness and the “blame game” led to a stalemate among the leadership team. They knew the organization needed to make some changes, but they were unable to move forward with a sense of collective responsibility.
The Solution: To instill a sense of collective ownership and action, we helped to shift their mindset from avoidance and blame, to one of trust, openness, and shared responsibility.
We spent time focusing on their shared objectives as a leadership team and explored what makes them effective. After building trust and sharing ownership, the leadership team reflected on the employee feedback once more, and together, prioritized action areas that would make the biggest difference to employees and the business. Then, during a top-100 leader meeting, we held an “uncomfortable truths” workshop where we explored each priority area, how we could address it collectively, and how we could create a safe space to share truths and ideate.
The Result: Both the C-Suite and top-100 leaders embraced healthy mindsets and behaviors that led to a more trusting, transparent, and open environment. They are now listening to employee feedback and acting on the most pressing areas – positioning them as a stronger, more united leadership team.
Scenario 3: Change fatigue is setting in across the organization
The Situation: In today’s current climate, everyone is experiencing some level of change fatigue. And while change is needed to progress and move forward, there are many feelings of exhaustion, especially when it comes to yet another complex change initiative.
One of our clients who wanted to implement a new operating model, internal listening exercises, interviews, and focus groups uncovered a real threat of change fatigue across all areas of the organization.
The Solution: We quickly realized that inundating the organization with more information and a longer to-do list would be counterproductive, but we knew they could not afford to wait and lose any momentum or progress.
We needed to help the leadership team see that the change fatigue was genuine, and that managing the pace of change would help address this. To do that, we took the leadership team through a prioritization exercise to identify which decisions needed quick action, focusing on easy, fast wins and mid-to-long-term goals and critical changes.
We then broke down the changes into easily digestible micro-changes that indicated the clear reasons for the change, the benefits to the organization (both short-term and long-term), and next steps.
The Result: By reframing the challenge as small, incremental steps, it made the larger change feel less daunting and more approachable. We didn’t ask the leadership team to let go of any of their goals or even slow down. Instead, we encouraged the team to think about how it felt to be on the receiving end of all the changes, and what could be broken down into smaller steps and quick-wins. This re-established momentum behind the transformation, and made the longer term, critical goals feel more achievable across the organization.
The leadership team also communicated regularly with the organization, with a “you said; we did” style progress report, which helped to celebrate the wins and accomplishments together, and highlighted groups and individuals who had done exceptional work along the way.
Collecting and listening to feedback is one of the best ways for leaders to improve the employee experience, but taking demonstrable action is where organizations can really gain traction in terms of employee engagement, trust, and psychological safety.