How to Gather Actionable Employee Feedback About the Manager

The dream of every chief human resources officer is to have a feedback-centered company culture. After all, feedback is the cornerstone of growth and improvement. However, the road to a perfect communication culture is long and requires extensive effort from all employees. 

January 25, 2023 By Ivo Jurcic Share on Twitter! Share on Facebook! Share on LinkedIn!

Not all employees are comfortable criticizing their leaders, which means HR has to introduce new practices to encourage confidence and bottom-up criticism. 

In this article, we’ll be talking about different ways how organizations can solicit actionable employee feedback about their managers and bring the feedback culture to the next level.  

1. Improve one-on-one meetings

One-on-one meetings are the ground zero of the relationship between an employee and their line manager. 

They’re best imagined as the perfect spot between formal and informal meetings where both parties can freely share each other’s point of view, exchange candid feedback, but also talk about things outside of their career. 

1:1’s are essential for forming genuine employee-manager relationships because of three reasons:

  1. They guarantee every employee gets dedicated time to speak to their manager.
  2. They are safe spaces where employees can confide in their handlers, talk about any topic and resolve issues, concerns, or uncertainties
  3. They ensure employees’ voices can be heard and passed on to the senior leaders

Let’s break down these reasons and discuss how they can actually be improvement checkpoints. 

One global report surveyed over 200 managers across 30 industries to investigate the state of 1:1 meetings.

94% of surveyed managers claim they have 1:1 meetings, with the remaining 6% citing lack of time as their main reason for not having 1:1s. 

An overwhelming amount of managers make the time to talk to their employees. 

A closer look at meeting frequency numbers reveals that:

  • 49% of managers have weekly 1:1s
  • 33% of managers have bi-weekly 1:1s
  • 15% of managers have monthly 1:1s
  • 3% of managers have quarterly 1:1s

With almost half of managers having weekly 1:1s and more than a third committing to a bi-weekly cadence, line managers that fall outside of these groups will have to step up. It’s ambitious to ask employees to give actionable manager feedback without being willing to provide 1:1 time at least every second week. 

Onto the second reason.

The State of One-on-ones delivered one valuable piece of insight; the list of most discussed topics at 1:1s. 

According to the report, 75% of managers discuss growth and development, making it the most popular topic. 

The second most frequently discussed topic is productivity (56%), followed by employee motivation (49%). 

The least discussed topic is the employee’s alignment with the company’s mission and vision discussed in only 23% of 1:1 meetings. 

This bit of info should raise alarm bells. It should make HRs hair stand on end. 

For starters, these topics do not cover the employee’s perception of their manager’s performance as a leader. None of these topics ask the employee what are their attitudes or what feedback would they provide about their manager. The organization can’t expect actionable feedback about leaders if employees are not actively encouraged to share it. 

Giving bottom-up feedback is not merely an action; it’s a cultural attitude. 

If cultural topics are rarely discussed at 1:1s and there’s no effort to communicate the value and importance of employee feedback, organizations are not going to get the actionable insight they’re hoping for. 

And improvement will be slow. 

Finally, 1:1 meetings create an impression that employees’ voices are being heard by senior leadership. When employees feel heard, they understand how their particular bit of feedback contributes to the improvement of the organization. 

Employees have to see a tangible change in their department. Then they become encouraged to open up and share more actionable feedback. 

Feeling heard has everything to do with following up. 

2. Provide Feedback Training 

Being able to ask for employee feedback in an encouraging way is an invaluable mix of soft skills that are not innate to every manager or HR.

But they absolutely can be learned and developed.

Organizations should provide feedback training to managers and HRs and enable them to solicit and use employee feedback effectively. 

Asking for something is an act of communication. 

With feedback training, managers become better communicators, and able to explain the value of bottom-up feedback to employees. They learn how to ask questions that employees are comfortable answering and create a supportive environment for giving feedback. 

One employee feedback report surveyed over 800 full-time employees from the U.S. to discuss the state of employee feedback. 

They found that 21% of employees did not share feedback because they did not have any or felt that it wasn’t important, or confidential, or they feared repercussions. 

Additionally, 44% of employees believe only incremental change will come from giving feedback. 

This includes understanding the importance of employee confidentiality, even when employees are criticizing their performance. 

As for the improvement side, knowing how to collect feedback and put it to practice is also a string of skills that needs to be mastered. 

For instance, asking open-ended questions to employees, instead of direct and non-conversational ones, can make all the difference in getting actionable feedback. 

Managers need to develop the cognitive skills to: 

  • process feedback from many employees
  • identify improvement areas in their processes
  • develop plans for putting the feedback to use 

There’s also the matter of knowing how to store feedback, measure improvement, and report on it. 

This is a tall order. 

Of course, managers and HRs are not robots. 

However, effective feedback training goes a long way. 

And there are amazing tools that simplify these processes and support managers and HR professionals when asking for actionable employee feedback.  

We’ll talk more about that later in the article. 

3. Form Feedback Focus Groups

Focus groups are a method of collecting feedback from a discussion-based environment. 

Employees are brought together to talk about a topic or process and derive in-depth feedback that reveals patterns, recurring themes, and issues that can be solved or improved. Additionally, focus groups help HR identify unknown employee needs and ways in which line managers can service them. 

It’s important to understand that for many employees, it’s easier to open up in focus groups because they feel safer in a group dynamic. 

Individuals are more encouraged to share their thoughts with one another. 

This brings HR closer to collecting department-wide feedback about managers and improving management. 

After defining the objectives, running the focus groups occurs in several steps, the first one being the selection of participants for the focus groups. 

According to the Office of Institutional Research Assessment of CCSU, the ideal size of a focus group is 8-10 subjects, plus a facilitator and a note taker. 

A facilitator is best defined as a discussion leader who explains the purpose of the focus group, the analysis methods that will be used, and confidentiality practices to reassure all the participants. 

The note taker is another researcher responsible for taking notes even though the discussion might be recorded. The goal of note-taking is to collect the researcher’s observations of the discussion and participants.

 Additionally, organizations should explore third-party research providers to conduct a focus group. 

The discussion leader should begin by explaining the purpose and format of the focus group, noting your methods of analysis (direct quotations, coding of responses, etc.) and confidentiality practices appropriate to your study. 

As far as group questions go, there are 4 different types of questions that should be covered in the discussion. The questions have to be prepared in advance ahead of the focus group date:

  • Demographic questions reveal factual demographic data relevant to the research. The most common parameters are age, race, company tenure, position, etc. 
  • Behavior questions reveal the behavior patterns of employees when interacting with their managers.
  • Knowledge questions determine what employees know or think they know about a topic.
  • Impression questions are used to determine the opinions, values, and feelings of employees regarding their working relationship with the manager. This category is important because it reveals what are the drivers of positive and negative feelings in their work and what can the manager do about them. 

The last 3 types of questions are conceptual and are best explored after a bit of ice-breaking. 

After transcribing the conversation and notes, the HR department can analyze the wealth of data and organize it into actionable feedback, which can be reported and applied. 

4. Conduct Exit Interviews 

While exit interviews are bittersweet for most companies, they present a hugely beneficial opportunity to learn from employees that are about to leave the organization. 

An exiting employee is more likely to provide honest feedback about their experiences with their line manager because they’re no longer under pressure and face no fear of retribution. If their reason for leaving is indeed the manager or toxic company culture, they’re free to speak their mind. HR should jump at this opportunity like a tiger. 

The Harvard Business Review surveyed senior leaders and executives that represent 210 organizations across 33 industries in 35 different countries, to investigate their exit interview practices. 

The survey found that roughly 75% of the organizations conducted exit interviews with at least some employees who are departing the organization. 

For 70.9% of these companies, HR was the main process handler. 

19% of organizations had the departing employee’s direct supervisor handle the process, and 8.9% of organizations relied on the direct supervisor’s manager. 

An argument can be made that the direct manager isn’t the best person to conduct the exit interview because if the manager’s actions caused the employee to leave, they wouldn’t be likely to tell that to their soon-to-be former manager during the interview. 

This hardly comes as a shock. 

After the Great Resignation, employees are leaving their companies at an unprecedented rate. 

Despite two consecutive recessions, the demand for skilled employees is growing in almost every industry, according to Deloitte

source: Deloitte Insights

In June 2021, the number of total job openings has even surpassed the total number of unemployed persons. 

On the other hand, second or third-line managers are perceived as a better choice for exit interviewers than direct supervisors because they are more likely to use the information gathered and contribute to actual change. 

There’s also the fact that they are further from the leaving employee and have no personal attachments. 

However, the questions of who is actually handling the exit interview and how is the process maintained are hugely important. If the handler is just ticking boxes and storing information, the organization is not likely to review and improve its management practices. 

The individual conducting the interview has to be empathetic and can get insights into the experiences of employees and the direct impact of their line manager. 

This gives HR something actionable to work with. 

For example, a series of exit interviews with leaving employees who claim they disliked micromanagement practices is like a signal flare, telling HR that the manager has to rethink their management antics. Additionally, higher-ups can then consider providing training or coaching for the manager to resolve poor handling. 

Exit interview data can make a difference between improving management and losing more employees. 

Ignoring the merit of exit interviews makes zero sense. 

5. Deploy an Internal Feedback Channel 

Internal communication tools are the backbone of every organization. They provide a way for the workforce to communicate with each other and the leadership. 

In this day and age, every company should have a dedicated channel for soliciting sophisticated employee feedback, including the feedback they have about the manager. An internal feedback channel alleviates many setbacks that keep employees from giving candid feedback. 

First of all, it guarantees anonymity. 

Many employees are not comfortable criticizing their manager for many reasons, ranging from fears of retribution to a simple lack of a feedback culture in the company. 

Second, internal communication tech makes feedback soliciting more convenient. 

Regardless if employees work in an office, on-site or a labor-intense work environment, such as a factory, they can access the app on their phone and send their feedback about their manager. After employees have just completed a demanding project or task, they can share opinions about how the assignment was managed. 

Having a system in place for soliciting quick, timely feedback enables shortens the improvement cycle. 

Unfortunately, many organizations still follow the stale practice of surveying employees seasonally, which makes collecting employee feedback about their manager less frequent and cuts down on improvement. 

According to recent data from the Great Place to Work Institute, 90% of companies survey their employees only once a year. 

Consider how many insights about management HR is missing. 

In one year, a company could be losing dozens of employees because of a bad habit that took too long to discover. 

Companies need to do better. 

Feedback culture has come such a long way from old-fashioned employee engagement surveys. However, getting the feedback you can almost immediately put to use is still a challenge. What you can do to get ahead of it is to consolidate all your communication tech stack and create a unified platform that can address cultural challenges regarding feedback, improve the feedback soliciting, and use analytics to process every bit of precious data you get from your employees. Even if the feedback you get doesn’t necessarily spell everything out, you have the tools you need to organize it and see where your managers can make an improvement. That’s what I call a game-changer.

Vladimir Antonovski, People Success Manager at Semos Cloud

Technology is here to break the stalemate. 

Outstanding internal communication tools empower employees to share their feedback and impressions in many ways, such as:

  • Pulse surveys; brief surveys that help HR understand employees’ views on project communication, task assignment, relationships with their manager, the work environment, etc. 
  • Open-ended feedback form; forms where employees can freely write detailed experiential or conceptual feedback
  • Likert scales; forms where employees rate their manager or a manager-related topic on a scale (for instance, from 1 to 5) with anchor points on both extremes. This helps employees express their impressions or neutrality 

The best survey solutions offer a wealth of personalization capabilities, so HR can draft forms that work best for their research and optimization methods. 

For example, the tool Nurture provides survey design features, which gives HR the flexibility to design the best survey for their workforce and ask the most relevant questions about the manager.

nurture image

By the same token, an internal feedback channel comes with analytics and measurement features that are essential for creating a data-backed manager improvement strategy. 

Ultimately, they reveal whether HR’s employee feedback initiatives were successful. 

More than a quarter (27%) of internal communication professionals surveyed in Gallagher’s report stated their biggest challenge for internal communications in 2022 is a lack of analytics and measurement. 

Collecting feedback is not solely about getting as actionable statements as possible, but also the tools to measure how employees are responding to feedback requests, whether are they opening forms, how much time they take to write feedback, etc. 

These are all quantifiable pieces of data that lead to long-term improvement. 

So far, we’ve established that deploying an internal feedback channel enables convenient and quick gathering of employee feedback about their manager. 

We’ve talked about different methods and forms that HR can use to solicit feedback quicker and how analytics help determine the approach that works best, but what about integrating a new communication solution for that purpose? 

HR and leadership have to leverage surveying solutions with deep integration functionalities with the organization’s HCM. 

If you’re a global enterprise, you’re better off integrating a customizable survey tool on top of your existing communication platform than getting a separate solution. 

Separate solutions that can’t be integrated on top of your HCM, such as SuccessFactors or Oracle, come with a difficult change management period. 

Besides onboarding, there are also risks of poor integration and lacking functionality. 

Contrary to shallow integration, deep integration allows HR to create and send surveys to employees without any frustration or setbacks. 

Ideally, a surveying solution will work hand-in-hand with an organization’s communication tech stack, so that asking employees for feedback about their manager becomes a natural part of corporate communication, instead of a separate activity.

To wrap things up, here’s an image of consolidated internal communications, where HR and managers can create surveys, request feedback, and access analytics that are easy to read and report back:

nurture analytics

Some of the data include employee response rates, devices used for answering surveys, average survey consumption time, and the average time to link clicks.

Conclusion 

If organizations want better management, they need actionable feedback from their employees. Employee-manager relationships can vary, which makes soliciting this type of feedback somewhat tricky. 

In this article, we’ve talked about five things organizations can do to address these challenges and collect candid employee feedback:

  • Improve one-on-one meetings with the manager
  • Provide feedback training 
  • Form feedback focus groups with employees
  • Conduct exit interviews
  • Deploy an internal feedback channel with superior personalization and analytics capabilities

Creating a culture where employees feel confident about speaking up and giving feedback is the goal of every HR professional. Companies that are successful at this goal will be the first ones to get the feedback their managers need to hear. 

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