How to Ask the Right Questions of Your Employees

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Companies spend a lot of money trying to understand their customers -- and rightfully so. But with so much investment in improving the customer experience, many businesses aren’t spending enough effort to understand and engage their own employees. As Harvard Business Review aptly notes, “Businesses don’t create value; people do.”

Employees are critical to an organization’s success. Engaged staff are more productive, profitable and more likely to stay longer. And the best way to engage employees? Listen to them. That is, you should employ active listening – passive listening won’t cut it.

While many companies give lip service to the idea of employee feedback, most are using the wrong methods to obtain it -- and they’re asking the wrong things. We commonly see great leaders ask great questions. Listening to your employees on a large scale is no different. You’ll get nowhere if you’re not asking valuable questions of your employees to really understand their experiences, ideas and concerns so that you can implement real changes in your business.

Here are a few best practices to ensure you’re instituting the right kind of employee feedback program – one that generates tangible results for your business:

●      Encourage honesty

Many companies make the mistake of only asking questions they want to hear the answer to. There is a fear of “opening Pandora’s box.” Yet, there is an unmatched level of genuineness in asking the hard questions. And the most valuable insights are sometimes difficult to address. It’s important to know where your business is excelling, and be sure to ask about your strengths. But it’s equally crucial to ask about the real challenges employees face daily and the problems in your company that are hindering its success. When collecting feedback from employees, don’t only ask the easy questions.

While anonymity in employee pulse questionnaires can, of course, encourage honesty, you should go further than that by fostering a culture of empowerment and transparency. For most companies, this is a journey as true empowerment and transparency requires trust – a core element. Almost 70 percent of CEOs note that trust is harder and harder to gain and retain. Active listening in conjunction with feedback, creating a closed-loop cycle, jump-starts the process of building trust with your employees. Employees should feel free to openly share constructive feedback about the business, without having to vent frustrations on anonymous surveys.

On a similar note, it’s critical not to ask leading questions. Even subtle nuances in the way you pose questions to employees can make a big difference. For example, the question, “How satisfied are you with your work/life balance?” might cause an employee to respond more positively than “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your work/life balance?” Be strategic and specific when asking these questions for the best, honest insights.

●      Focus on what you can change

In approaching your employees, remember it’s about continuous improvement and innovation. Nothing is built overnight. In an effort to gauge employee sentiment, many leaders ask questions that stem from a lack of strategic alignment. As a result, answers and any insight are mismatched with the organization's overall mission. “Do you have a best friend at work?” does little to create purpose or impact for the employee or the organization. We are talking about more than ping pong tables and snacks.

Satisfaction and meaningful purpose in work are proven drivers in the employee experience. Questions need to be aligned to overall strategic goals and objectives, purpose, to drive value for both the employee and the business. These answers can be small and large changes – and you don’t need to do them all at once (or even at all). Focus on what you can change, mindfully postpone what needs to wait, and table those that aren’t feasible today. Most importantly, communicate it all.

For example, questions about process improvements can uncover small but impactful insights such as automating some recurring processes or rerouting structures. But they can also uncover large issues such as severe functionality deficiencies in core systems. Focus on a journey of continuous improvement. Tackle the small and impactful changes today; undertake the large ones when (and if) it is feasible and more appropriate. But if you don’t ask employees openly and honestly, you may never know the level of deficiency and waste core systems (or any other issues) really are to your business.

●      Take an always-on approach

Sometimes, it’s not about what questions you ask -- it’s about whether or not you’re present and listening. Active listening is a paramount tenet of this process.

You can’t always dictate what questions you ask employees, or even when you ask them. Nor should you. The best feedback comes when you take an always-on approach: an open conduit of communication so that employees can share insights whenever it’s best for them.

This could come after a meeting, customer call or a conversation on a coffee break. Whatever might trigger feedback from employees, it’s best to get their thoughts when the insight is fresh. Also, employees are more likely to give more feedback if they can do so on their own time, rather than being prompted by a survey in the middle of what could be a busy work day. At its core, an always-on approach and active listening creates a mutual dialogue, a conversation, which is necessary to establish and retain trust within your organization.

Employee engagement is an ongoing process, and it should be as any relationship is. It takes time and effort to develop trust with staff. But the businesses that can truly listen to employees, foster high-performance teams to drive superior businesses (and bottom lines) -- will stay ahead of the curve. 

About frank.møllerop

Frank Møllerop

Frank Møllerop is a seasoned executive with a history of bringing innovation, intelligence and actionable insight to enterprises worldwide. With over 5,000 customers including one third of the Forbes 2000, Frank oversees Questback and its enterprise feedback management solutions, enabling enterprises to gather insight from employees and customers, act and bridge the gap between strategic planning and operational execution. 

Joining Questback on the foundation of a distinguished career, Frank was previously an executive at SAS, the global leader in business analytics. Under his leadership, SAS received the prestigious “Great Place to Work” award; simultaneously, Frank was named “IT executive of the year” and received the Rosing Award. Previously at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Frank’s expertise lies in analytics, business intelligence and innovative technology, transforming insight into business results.

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