Undercover Boss is a TV show placing disguised CEOs on the front lines of their own company. The shows goal is for employees to be honest about their work, managers, views on the company and their impressions of leadership.
The show can be corny. Still, it shows the value of unvarnished employee opinions on life at the ground level. The larger the company, the harder it is to have a good sense of employee viewpoints. Even in a small company, people act differently around the owner or executive leadership.
Each episode brings important revelations to the CEO, many of them emotional. So, how do managers put aside their own Kool-Aid to find the truth?
Talk with thought leaders: Every part of a business has informal thought leaders. People trust these peers, and go to them for advice and to vent frustrations. Identify these thought leaders and invite them in for relaxed, one-on-one conversations. Be honest about your purpose: to discover employee perceptions in this area of the business so you can take positive action on their comments.
Tell them why they were selected for this conversation and that you are talking with others as well. Be open about concerns you already sense in order to demonstrate the type of conversation you desire. Assure confidentiality and resist the urge to press for who said that? Get back to this thought leader with some pieces of your plan of action as a thanks and offer feedback for their help.
Anniversary coffee: Most employees want more time with their boss. (If not, why?) Lunch or coffee to celebrate an employees anniversary is a great time to check in for workplace improvement ideas. Position the conversation as a thank-you and as a way to make your company a better place to work. This is not a performance review, so set their mind at ease. No bad ideas, no funny looks, just listening and learning. Tell me more is a good phrase to use.
Employee surveys: Independent confidential employee surveys that include space for written comments are invaluable. Yes, some responses are off-base, but trends revealed by the process deserve attention. Thought leader interviews might come after a survey, using some of the general survey findings for discussion. Public follow-up with the surveyed group is key. Internal surveys might help, but are unlikely to produce the breadth and honesty of an independently run process.
Start/stop: If we want to continuously improve, what should we stop doing and what should we start doing? Ask for this written anonymous feedback on a card during an all-hands meeting. Collect the cards and even read from a few to spark discussion, especially if you set a pattern of doing this and taking appropriate action. Alternately, you might summarize some of the comments and positive changes in a follow-up message.
There are dozens of ways to receive honest feedback if you want to hear it and if people trust your intentions. There is no perfect workplace, but this is how companies get better.
Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 N.C. employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit www.capital.org.