KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Do you know what your staff are thinking?

with 5 comments

I had an interesting conversation recently with a colleague who was asking where to go to get reliable feedback on how staff felt about a new organizational initiative.

Based on talking to people he sensed that although there was a broad support for the idea, there were some misgivings and concerns about how it was being implemented, and perhaps others who ought to be more involved or engaged who were either unaware or uninterested in it for some reason. The colleague had of course expressed his concerns to his bosses, but they were not convinced – after all where is the evidence?

But this got me thinking – do most organizations have good ways to know what their staff are thinking? Not only whether staff are happy with things like their working conditions or salaries – but perhaps more importantly – are they happy about the direction of the organization, are they happy with their bosses – do they feel like their contributions are taken seriously – do they have the opportunity to contribute at all.

Knowing what your staff are thinking should be important to senior management – if only to flag any areas where discontent is or lack of commitment is undermining organizational performance. But beyond that it’s also important to be able to tap into the enthusiasm of your staff, get them to offer their insights on how to do the work better, and also to help identify things that get in the way of them contributing their best. But it’s surprising how often this feedback is overlooked.

So how do you go about getting this feedback? I’d suggest there are two aspects:

1. Have the listening tools in place.

2. Actually care about what staff are saying and show it.

There are a number of useful tools and techniques that organizations can use to listen to their staff.

i) Staff  surveys:  these can be done as general across the board satisfaction surveys, or done on specific topics. These are good in that they can seek inputs from a broad range of staff, and can be used to get quantitative data. It can also allow for anonymous responses so people can feel free to express how they really think. It might even be possible to do some interesting cross tabulations to help understand issues – for example when UNICEF did a staff survey a few years ago I was able to analyze the data to see that there was a strong relationship between job satisfaction, and people feeling they had opportunities to share their expertise and knowledge.

That said surveys are time consuming to carry out and only give you a snapshot of views at one particular time. They also only allow you to look at issues on the surface – and further follow up is needed to know what’s behind some of the responses.

ii) Internal electronic  discussion fora – especially open-ended ones: Examples of tools include internal microblogging such as Yammer. You might also use specific staff feedback forums such as a having a change management discussion forum. It’s important though that to be productive these fora are seeded with questions and useful discussions which can stimulate staff to contribute. Another option is to create an online suggestion box where people can contribute ideas to improve the office, whether on technical substantive issues, or on things like how to reduce  costs or improve work/life balance.

iii) staff contributed newsletters:  having an internal staff news where staff members can contribute articles and views can be a useful channel to hear from staff – IF the publication is willing to take on the issues that matter most to staff – while remaining constructive – which needs careful management.

iv) town hall meetings: organizing open meetings where staff can ask questions is a great way for senior staff to listen and for “regular staff” who don’t often have access to senior  leadership to see and interact with them. But in a global organization these also need to be either done in multiple locations, or they need to be designed to allow remote participation both in terms of listening , but also contributing (see my previous post on e-participation)

v) management by walking around: the act of actually going around and talking to people unannounced shouldn’t be overlooked. Of course this also has to be done when travelling, and you can’t only visit your favourite or closest floor of the office.

vi) media monitoring – in the worst case scenario – it’s a sure sign something is going wrong is when there are negative media stories quoting unnamed sources from inside your organization – and this is more likely to happen when there is no internal channel for people to aid their concerns.

But tools only take you so far. The real enabler is a management culture that listens and shows that it values the inputs of its staff. Whatever tools you use – if your staff believe you are not interested in what they have to say, or worse that there are repercussions for expressing dissent or dissatisfaction then people will just “tell the boss what he wants to hear”.

This means having the channels open, asking questions in a way that encourages people to be honest in offering their inputs, showing that you have heard what is coming through, and that it is valued and being responded to in some way. So this means widely publishing the results of staff surveys and responding to some of the main issues that arise from them. It means participating in online channels and responding to issues published there. It means having some mechanism to review and review ideas coming into the suggestion box – and to act on at least some of them.

But it’s also important to recognize that once you move forward with this – it’s also hard to go back afterwards. If you have a survey – but then discontinue it, or have an open discussion forum then take it away, it potentially sends a worse message than not having done it in the first place (I was listening – but didn’t like what I heard so decided to stop).

Listening does not mean unconditionally accepting whatever suggestions are made, or issues are raised – but it does mean acknowledging them and showing that they are welcomed and being thought about – not least to ensure that in future when input is really needed – people are willing to offer it.

Written by Ian Thorpe

August 2, 2011 at 3:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. Great article. Staff engagement and inclusion can help orgs of all kinds achieve more for so many different reasons. When you ask people to be involved, have a say and then actually listen and respond you can move from basic compliance at work to genuine commitment.

    One of the tools I’ve had success with that’s not mentioned in your post is http://www.thotstr.com/ I do their community engagement stuff so yes am bias but and this is a big but I only work for them because I really love the platform. One of the best uses I’ve seen with it is day to day engagement of all staff in an organization. It’s a game changer in org if used as it’s meant to be.

    Jamie Billingham

    August 3, 2011 at 1:17 pm

  2. […] last blog post talked about the need for organizations to listen to their staff. But it’s even more for organizations to listen to the people they work for. And to be clear […]

  3. […] Organizations can and do put efforts into objective measures of their progress (how much money did they raise and spend, how many vaccines did they distribute, how many government counterparts did they train etc.) which can be more informative that whatever we do on a personal level, but they are much less strong in seeking feedback on the perceptions or views of others, especially those they are seeking to help ( a common topic on this blog, and one for which there are various approaches we should be using more). […]

  4. […] main clients think we are doing  and whether we are improving over time. We can also anonymously ask our staff the same questions to see whether or not we feel we are doing better. The good news is we have the […]

  5. […] Listening to staff – Typically in the UN when we face a systemic issue we form a task of senior level officials or a […]


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