A voice, not a vote Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2008
Interviewed by Paul R. Harvey

A recent survey of HR professionals revealed that at two of every five companies, employees believe their top managers spend too much time talking and not enough time asking questions and listening.

Employees who feel heard feel engaged. Those who don’t settle into a culture of indifference where creative ideas and critical thinking evaporate.

“Most executives understand that employee feedback is good, but in the rush of the day and because they need quick decisions, they often choose to make their decisions with limited input,” says Charlotte Baker, CEO, Digital Hands. “Snap, snap, decide and execute.”

Smart Business asked Baker why seeking a voice is not giving a vote and why speed and consistency may be the best method to gather feedback.

What are some ways that employee input can benefit a company?

Employees are closest to customers, processes, problems, opportunities and the elements that make change successful. Soliciting their input means you have current data, an intuitive pulse and many more brains thinking about the problem you are trying to solve. Soliciting their feedback is motivating for employees and productive for your organization. Ongoing discussions and feedback keep everyone rowing in the right direction. Your job as the executive is to gather the input, spot check intuitive with quantitative data, solicit great ideas that are in line with strategy and, in the end, make a decision and lead the way. By hiring smart people and trusting their insights and analysis, you can grow your company faster than you could trying to think up great ideas in a vacuum or with your power of one mind.

Are there any risks to soliciting employee input?

There is a risk to not soliciting employee input. In the executive seat, you can be removed from the details and miss the mark by overlooking what everyone else sees and lives every day. Not only can you make some really dumb decisions by not soliciting input, you also can demotivate and alienate your employees.

If executives realize the value of employee feedback, why doesn’t everyone jump on the opportunity?

The three main reasons for not jumping on the opportunity to get the feedback are noise, obligation and time. Feedback from everyone creates great ideas. Some unusual ones, too, but you just never know when a crazy idea will lead you to a stellar one. And the patience for sifting through the offbeat ones can be nonexistent.

Some executives hesitate to solicit input because they believe there is an obligation to act on it. There is not an obligation. A business isn’t a democracy. By making it clear that you are seeking voices, and that it isn’t the same as giving a vote, you can avoid potential disappointments. The truth is, if you make it part of your culture, it will become an anticipated and pleasant method for decision-making within the organization.

What are the solutions for getting feedback from employees?

My favorite way to track and solicit feedback is the fast way, with constant daily conversation and finger on the pulse conversations. Doing this consistently over time means it becomes institutionalized and expected. Once the institutional norms are set, there is no need to give orientations to a process, backgrounders, written responses, etc.

The solution to this is to pick your feedback captains who, in turn, have their own go-to sources. This works in any size organization. Develop these captains as trusted confidantes with whom you interface daily. When employee ideas are truly exceptional and are put into practice, celebrate and give credit. Proper recognition of thoughts and ideas is important in order to keep the river of ideas flowing, because you do not want to stifle your employees by forgetting to acknowledge their contributions. By adopting a daily conversational way of bouncing ideas and soliciting feedback, you can accomplish the goal without ever having to formalize a time-consuming institutional system, and your team will feel as if it is an integral part of the process without needing constant reinforcement for doing so.

How can leaders communicate with employees about why certain decisions are made?

Honestly. Tell them what factors were weighed and share with them why you chose your decision. Recognize the strength you have as an organization due to their willingness to share ideas and try again and again to help make the company the best it can be. Finally, let them know your final decision, your confidence in their cooperation and the expected results.

CHARLOTTE BAKER is the CEO of Digital Hands in Tampa. Reach her at (813) 222-3022 or charlotte@digitalhands.com. Digital Hands is Tampa Bay WorkForce Alliance’s 2008 Business Excellence Award Recipient in the Emerging Business Category.

Charlotte Baker
Digital Hands, Tampa