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Employee Feedback: You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know


Remember the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes?” How no one wanted to tell the emperor his expensive “new clothes” were actually invisible for fear of appearing unfit for their positions?

Employees do this too.

They’ll withhold their true, honest opinions and insulate leadership with positive feedback so as not to “disrupt the waters.” A recent Harvard Business Review article referred to this as the “good news cocoon.” And it makes it more challenging to identify impending threats—both internal and external to the org—which are usually first visible on the fringes.

Former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once explained the concept of “unknown unknowns,” stating “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And…it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

What don’t you know about your employee culture? And what other aspects of your business are you putting at risk by not knowing?

The answer is often found by asking the right questions. The article quotes Elon Musk, visionary behind PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla: “A lot of times the question is harder than the answer. If you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part.”

In matters related to employees, I would take this a step further and assert that at times, there is reluctance to ask employees the right survey questions because the leader is fearful they’ll receive a request that they’re unwilling or unable to act upon, only disengaging their employees further. This fear is absolutely warranted—when they’re asking the wrong questions and/or asking them the wrong way.

Here are a few ways you can become better at asking questions to unlock insights from throughout your organization that will help you make better decisions:


Simply Ask

The journey of a 1,000 miles begins with the first step. Start by resolving to resist becoming insulated and instead ask your employees what they think. At a minimum, consider inviting groups of employees to “lunch with the CEO” and ask simple questions about their roles, their views on the culture, and what they’d do if they were in your shoes. Here’s a list of questions to get you started.


How You Ask is as Important as What You Ask

Providing context increases response rates. If employees don’t understand why you’re asking or who will see the responses, they may hold back from providing their full, honest answer. Here are a few examples:


“What questions do you have for our HR department?”


“What questions would you like HR to address at our next quarterly meeting?”


“What questions would you like HR to address at our next quarterly meeting?

Arlene, the Head of HR, has committed to answering them during her speaking time at the meeting.”

Our Emplify CEO once sent a survey question which garnered only a handful of responses (in a company where we eat, sleep, and breathe this stuff). Rather than give up, he modified the question to include the context behind why he was asking and what we could expect him to do with what he learned. The result? NINE times the responses.


Make it Safe (and Anonymous) to Respond

The feedback you receive won’t be valuable if your people aren’t open and honest. You’ll remain in the cocoon. So employees need to be able to share their thoughts without fear of retribution. One straightforward way to facilitate a safe survey is by making it anonymous. However, keep in mind that most employees will still be skeptical of true confidentiality if you’re using your own internal systems for surveys and feedback. Consider using a third-party tool that takes a strong stance towards privacy. The candor in responses will more than offset what you forfeit in knowing who individually said what.


Acknowledge What You Heard

Even when you’ve asked a great question that reveals a key insight, your job isn’t done. Too often, an executive team will stop here when it’s actually imperative that they take it one step further and acknowledge that they heard the feedback. Some leaders fail to close the loop because they aren’t prepared to make a decision on the answer or suggestion. Instead of going radio silent, consider a response that acknowledges the feedback has been received and is being considered.


Leverage Resources Who Can Help

It’s easy to become isolated and put off installing good listening mechanisms…until it’s too late. Actively measuring employee engagement can become an early warning system for your culture, identifying fringe issues to be addressed before they fester and become more significant (think attrition, lack of innovation, or an inability to recruit the best talent).



What aren’t your employees telling you? Start listening and stop making uninformed decisions with Emplify. Get a demo and check out the insights you could be gathering today.


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