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How to generate honest, constructive feedback from a small team

Riley Cullen's Layout avatar

Great leaders want their teams to feel supported and heard, because when your employees feel respected, they’re more likely to stick around. 

No business wants to lose their best and brightest, but with the great resignation impacting the technology sector more than others, keeping your team intact is about more than paying them well and offering quality benefits. One of the ways you can prove your commitment to your employees is by asking for their input on your current performance and how it’s impacting the future of your business.

While this sounds easy, many leaders find—especially on small teams—that employees feel they can’t share their thoughts with 100% honesty. Sending out a survey and promising anonymity only means so much when there’s just a handful of people in the office. 

On a small team, employees may suspect (sometimes rightfully so) that they could be identified  based on their writing style or the specifics they mention in their survey. With that in mind, how do you convince your team to provide you with the difficult criticism you need to be a better leader? After all, you can’t fix a problem if you don’t know it exists.

Use these tips to get honest, constructive feedback from your team, even if it’s just a few people, so you can continue growing with them.

Make yourself approachable

If you want to get the best insights from your employees, they first have to feel comfortable approaching you outside of a scheduled 1:1 or other feedback session. Having an open-door policy, and making sure it’s well defined so your team actually uses it, is a great idea! 

However, the transition to hybrid or fully remote work environments has changed how we create the relationship-building moments that would normally happen in an in-office setting.

Requesting input regularly, whether through quick, informal meetings or even a simple email, can make all the difference. Go a step further by providing a clear timeline for your employees to provide their thoughts. For example, you could send a short email to the team saying “please provide any thoughts, questions, or concerns or send your all clear by [date].” 

Doing so gives your employees time to think about their work and gather their thoughts so they can clearly express their questions or concerns. It shows them you’re not just interested in what they can contribute to the end product, but about their thoughts on the project and how it affects your company’s goals overall.

Ask the right questions

Whether you’re asking for feedback on a project or sending out a more general company survey, the questions you ask—and how you ask them—will affect the quality of the feedback you receive. 

Keep your questions specific enough that you require more than a simple yes or no. Writing questions that inspire your employees to speak candidly is difficult, and you may have to test different questions to see which ones connect with your team. Some important topics you could ask about include:

  • Internal processes and whether they could be improved
  • Company values and if they’re being actualized
  • Any struggles facing your staff and how you can assist in overcoming them
  • Recent projects and how they could have gone better
  • Whether your team is feeling inspired to create their best work or if they’re facing burnout

Tools like 15five can help you get in the habit of asking for feedback regularly and allow you to ask lots of different questions without overwhelming your employees. You can set how often you want your employees to check in, and even create a rotating list of unique questions, giving your team the opportunity to provide bits of feedback over time instead of asking them to fill out a long, time-consuming survey.

Reframe the process

Employees can feel put on the spot when asked to give honest feedback about their role.

Instead of sending them an “employee feedback survey,” reframe the process as a “future of work survey” or an “agency growth” questionnaire. 

Framing the process as a way to do better in the future instead of a time to dwell on the issues of the past gives your team the opportunity to not only discuss issues, but also suggest solutions you might not have considered.

This also underlines the importance of providing advance notice and a generous timeline. To get the best feedback, you can’t just send out a spontaneous email with a survey attached. Give your team time to reflect on not only the successes and failures of the last year, but also how they felt they were able to meaningfully contribute and how they could have been better supported by you as a leader. That brings us to the next piece of advice:

Take the negatives with grace

Understanding and being empathetic of the issues raised by your employees will go a long way in helping improve their impression of both you and your business. After all, millions of Americans quit their jobs last year, and in Joblist’s U.S. Job Market Report for Q3 of 2021, 19% specifically reported doing so because they were unhappy with how their employer treated them during the pandemic.

So, if someone who reports to you raises an issue, your first goal should be to listen and understand. Even if you haven’t had the same experience, you won’t earn any points by speaking defensively or invalidating their feelings. Sometimes, the issue they raise may be something simple, like a communication preference, which you can take immediate action to remedy.

If the issue is more serious, though, take some time to do your due diligence. A simple “thank you for bringing this to my attention, I’m going to look into this and schedule a follow up with just the two of us as soon as possible,” can do the job of making your employee feel heard while giving yourself some time to digest and figure out a plan of action.  

Follow up with intention

No matter what kind of feedback you want or expect to receive, how you follow up is crucial. Asking for feedback is one thing, but once you get it, you have to be ready to address the issues your team has identified. Your employees trusted you enough to tell you about their problems at work—you’re the only one with the power to provide a solution.

Start by finding any common threads that pop up in the criticism. If multiple employees are identifying the same issue, that’s a great place to start making changes. Once you’ve identified the big issues, head back to the team.

In a meeting or email, name the issue or issues facing your team and share your plans to address the problems. For example, if six of the 15 surveys you sent out mention that employees are feeling burned out, it may be time to hire additional help to lighten the load. In many cases, it will be beneficial to open the floor to employees and ask for their opinions on next steps. As the people most affected by these problems, they’re often the ones with the best ideas to fix them. 

Get your team talking

Use these tips to get honest feedback from your employees so they can feel great at work and you can worry less about losing the valuable individuals whose expertise you rely on. Check out these articles for even more tips on building an effective communication strategy with your small team:

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