7 Steps for Responding to Negative Employee Feedback

It’s more than likely that improving employee engagement is at the top of your to-do list. Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends 2015 report found that the number one priority for HR professionals around the globe was culture and engagement.Of course, we know that nothing gets at the heart of this issue like the best tool for measuring it — employee engagement surveys. If you’re planning to check in with your workforce, kudos to you, but be prepared that the results may not always paint a rosy picture of what’s going on inside your organization.When faced with negative feedback, it’s tempting to do nothing — or take broad, overarching steps that totally reverse course on what you’ve been doing. Resist the temptation, especially with the former approach. Not acting on a survey may cause greater damage to employee engagement than not taking a survey in the first place.A BlessingWhite survey discovered the following:

  • 27% of employees reported being engaged when their company took no action to support employee engagement
  • This number drops to 24% for employees who took a survey with no follow-up
  • There’s also more at stake than just increased disengagement, including employee turnover. Consider also what a CareerBuilder survey found:
  • 48% employees would stay with a company that asks them what they want and puts that feedback into action
  • The best way to respond to negative feedback is with clear, actionable goals, not all of which have to be big shake-ups. Gallup, which has studied employee engagement for decades, notes, “Employees expect and need resolution, and one of the best ways to do this is through action planning.”That’s a process in which organizations first discuss survey results, then identify specific issues to target for overall improvement. Focus on what employees have told you isn’t working, take specific steps, and you might just turn lemons into lemonade.Here’s a seven-step game plan you can follow when dealing with negative survey results:

    1. Communicate

    Don’t hide survey results, even if they reveal widespread dissatisfaction, or the results appear embarrassing. Keeping the feedback away from employees only deepens any mistrust that may already exist.Share the survey results with employees in a way that highlights both the good and the bad, resisting the urge to put a positive spin on the negative feedback. Acknowledge that there are things you need to work on and, most importantly, be sure to clearly outline the steps you’ll be taking to create an action plan.

    2. Focus

    With a barrage of negative feedback, it’s easy to get the sense that all the problems have to be solved to improve engagement levels. Doing too much may actually harm your efforts to improve things because it stretches everyone, especially managers, too thin. Instead, select a few key issues to work on.There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to how you choose what to focus on. You can select issues across departments or choose the top problems facing each department. Ideally, you’ll be selecting issues that were repeatedly brought up by multiple employees in the survey, problems that could be characterized as systemic.

    3. Clarify

    As you’re narrowing down the focus on key issues, it’s also important to get clarification from the source. In this case, that’s your employees. For example, employees may have said that they’re not satisfied with communication from their managers. It would be easy to assume what they’re looking for is more communication because they’re not getting enough.However, asking employees to put into words what “good communication” means to them may surprise you. You could find out instead that their dissatisfaction stems from the type of communication they’re receiving from their managers rather than the frequency.

    4. Brainstorm

    If you’re committed to improvement, you should also be committed to trying new approaches. Conduct a brainstorming process to collect ideas, whether in working groups, as Gallup researchers suggest, or within smaller teams in each specific department.Our 2013 Employee Engagement Survey found that almost one in five responses from employees on surveys included a suggestion, so be sure to include them in the process. Of course, managers and leadership should bring ideas to the table as well and not expect employees to be the only source for solutions.

    5. Set goals

    Once you have a pool of ideas to draw from, it’s time to decide what can be accomplished, and by whom. Clear goals are important because they motivate both frontline employees and leadership to work towards improving the workplace with concrete steps. They’re also measurable, so it’s easy to assess the process along the way and make changes if necessary. Gallup researchers note, “[A] number of mechanisms need to be in place for goals to make a difference,” including communication, agreement, and commitment. Everyone involved needs to buy into the goals, which is only possible in an environment where open discussion is valued, so managers need to regularly facilitate honest conversation around the goals.

    6. Evaluate

    Ideally, you’ll be evaluating your action plan along the way, especially once you’ve established goals. Still, if you’ve made a number of changes across departments, you’ll want overall feedback on whether these changes have made a positive difference. That’s right — time for another survey! Now whether this is as all-encompassing as the last one is up to you, but taking another pulse is the best way to get insight into whether the changes you’ve made along the way have added up to improving workplace culture and employee engagement.

    7. Continue

    The process doesn’t end with another survey. The best workplaces are those where managers and leadership are committed to continuing to work alongside their employees on improving things. Maybe you’ve accomplished all the goals you set in your action plan, but there’s always something more you can do.Employee surveys are an excellent tool to measure employee engagement, but surveys without follow-up action are useless and could even be detrimental. Negative feedback from a survey can be alarming, perhaps even embarrassing, but the best response is a clear, constructive action plan. Do that, and you’ll not just be measuring employee engagement — you’ll be actively supporting it.