When times are tough, it’s tempting to bunker down, slip into survival mode and simply do your work. Unfortunately, business leaders can’t afford to pull up the drawbridge and cease communication. Indeed, since COVID-19 hit, employees have needed to see and hear from their leaders more than ever before.
However, even pre-pandemic, it was almost impossible for leaders to know everything happening inside their business. In a large (or even not so large) organisation, or a company that is undergoing significant change, it’s simply not viable for leaders to be on the ground “doing” or “executing”. You rely on the chain of command or corporate hierarchy to feed you whatever needs your attention. But what happens when that line of communication is faulty or doesn’t work at all?
A study from the late 1980s highlighted what can happen. Sidney Yoshida’s research uncovered the “Iceberg of Ignorance”. It was an influential study that led to the popularisation of suggestion boxes and quality circles, among other initiatives intended to bolster internal feedback.
In summary, the “Iceberg of Ignorance” looks much like the villainous iceberg from the film Titanic. It’s all about what happens under the surface of the water, and what does – or does not – get reported through the ranks to the top of the organisation. Thus:
- 100% of an organisation’s problems are known to front-line employees
- 74% of problems are known to supervisors
- 9% of problems are known to middle management
- 4% of problems are known to top managers
The above percentages must be viewed in context; 1989 was over 30 years ago and internal communication channels were nowhere near as sophisticated as they are today.
However, the underlying message is clear and still relevant today. Being too distant from the “front-line” and not being open to feedback is potentially costly. So, how can leaders improve their understanding of and involvement with the challenges facing employees? The answer is to create a feedback culture.
A healthy feedback culture is one where people are encouraged to openly express their views in the spirit of healthy dissent and debate. It allows for genuine feedback to be delivered in a supportive and thoughtful way, to help both the company and individuals grow and flourish.
A feedback culture can help to…
- Ensure issues are raised promptly. Employees – especially those undertaking the “doing” – will be more likely to raise issues and make suggestions if a feedback culture is evident. This enables managers to react faster, potentially fixing issues before they escalate.
- Ensure the right decisions are made. A feedback culture creates a continuous flow of information, which can then be filtered and actioned as appropriate.
- Uncover great ideas. Great ideas can come from anyone, anywhere, but often they get lost or don’t filter through the ideation process. A feedback culture gives employees a genuine voice, which can empower them to generate innovative ideas.
- Increase autonomy. A feedback culture removes the temptation to micro-manage and gives people the autonomy to do things their way – safe in the knowledge that their contribution is valued.
- Create an environment where rewards and recognition flourish. A feedback culture allows people to share great ideas and provide feedback – and the freedom to fail without repercussions (as long as positive learnings are obtained from that failure). As such, it also opens the gate to rewarding and recognising employees for their contributions.
Creating a feedback culture: Engage with employees to understand their pain points
It’s impossible to know what’s going on in your organisation without first getting more involved with employees. It’s probably not possible to understand what each and every employee is doing (especially in a large organisation) but consider undertaking in-person (or virtual) feedback sessions with departments or groups of people who undertake the same or similar roles. Alternatively, set up formal processes that allow the “chain of command” to obtain these insights regularly. Such processes will give employees the freedom to speak openly about what they see as pain points for customers and make suggestions on how to improve services.
First, a word of warning. This is not about micro-managing. Not only is micro-managing exhausting and unsustainable, it also tends to destroy productivity and creativity as employees feel they are constantly being monitored, with little or no scope for two-way feedback.
Feedback cultures can benefit from technology. Collaboration and communication tools like Zoom and Slack have become commonplace since COVID-19, and will likely become an accepted part of everyone’s working life moving forward. Critically, these tools allow for ideas to be shared and feedback to be given no matter where people are based. ELMO has recognised the challenge of engaging and collaborating with dispersed employees with ELMO Connect, which offers instant messaging functionality and integration with Zoom video conferencing.
Delving deeper, digital feedback solutions operate like traditional suggestion boxes, except employees submit their ideas via an online portal instead of a physical box. If they are comfortable having their name against the suggestion, they can. Otherwise, suggestions can be made anonymously. By gathering ideas on an ongoing basis, management can direct them to the right part of the business for prompt attention. Just as critically, management can track and communicate the resulting changes to systems, working conditions and anything else that comes out of the process.
Remember, a great way to get employees to buy into change initiatives and company decisions is to survey your workforce regularly, share survey insights with your people and then involve them in action planning. Pulse surveys are a key way to gain insights into employee sentiment – but it’s crucial to give employees the scope to add free text suggestions. In other words, don’t restrict them to set responses. ELMO Survey also allows for anonymous responses, which of course is crucial to obtaining honest, unfiltered feedback on confidential or sensitive topics.
When times are tough, ignorance certainly is not bliss. To manage teams effectively, leaders must emerge from the ivory tower, lower the drawbridge and foster a feedback culture. You’ll ultimately benefit from better, faster decisions, enhanced innovation, and a culture that encourages people to grow, develop and enjoy their work experiences.
ELMO Cloud HR & Payroll can help HR professionals manage their workforce, even while operating remotely. As a cloud-based solution, ELMO helps employers manage their teams from anywhere at any time from a secure, centralised location. All employee-employer touchpoints are covered by ELMO’s suite, from ‘hire to retire’. This includes the ELMO Engage suite, which encompasses ELMO Survey and ELMO Connect. For further information on any ELMO solutions, please contact us.