Want better feedback? How to build the trust it takes

Tom Skiba
Team Humu

Positive change depends on trust.

To make work better, you first need to figure out what exactly needs to become better. For example: Are important decisions made in an opaque and confusing way? Is it hard for employees to get the valuable feedback they need to learn and grow? Or do people want more opportunities to suggest ideas–and to have those ideas be taken seriously?

The best way to answer these questions is for employees to give you honest feedback. Which means that they need to trust you enough to tell you the truth. 

At Humu, we think a lot about how to earn this kind of trust. To drive positive change at work, we send every employee within an organization custom, scientifically-backed suggestions for small actions they can take that will have a big impact on how they feel–and perform–at work. To make sure we send the right recommendations to each individual, we need that person to feel comfortable opening up to us about what is and isn’t working.

The data suggest we’re pretty good at building trust. Across organizations, we sometimes see that scores on happiness and retention go down the second time employees take the diagnostic survey that powers our Nudge EngineⓇ. Our algorithms also detect statistical signals that demonstrate that even that if everyone claimed to feel pretty good about a specific area the first time they took the survey, they are now rating it more carefully. (And yes, those can both be good things. Stay with me.)

What accounts for these changes? People have started to trust us enough to tell us the truth. In fact, on the same surveys, we see scores whether or not employees feel their feedback has been addressed increase by 10%.

This also bears out in written comments along the lines of, “I wasn’t totally honest the first time around, because I was worried my responses would be used against me,” or even, “I didn’t respond to the first survey because I didn’t believe change was possible at the time.” 

At Humu, we’ve created an automated way to support leadership in building trust, but executives and managers at organizations of any size can start by taking these three steps.

Find out and speak to what’s really going on

Senior leaders need to show they are capable of understanding the demands employees face. Too often, leaders receive a smorgasbord of survey data, and then cherry pick information to paint the best picture possible. This is a fatal mistake. By presenting a story that doesn’t accurately represent the day-to-day of most people within the organization, leaders come across as out of touch. Worse, they appear incapable of fixing what is really broken. 

But even the most well-intentioned leaders can look inept if they don’t empower mid-level managers to speak accurately and confidently about survey results. Senior leaders should make it a priority to have managers rehearse how they plan to message high-level goals with their team, and to offer advice on how these managers can more clearly communicate a path forward. 

Make promises, and keep them

Once leadership has proven they can identify the most pressing problems within their organization, they must take action. Senior leaders who fail to address the issues their people have told them should be top priorities destroy trust. Employees need to know their feedback will be taken seriously—and not used against them. Without these assurances, they will hold back their true feelings, leaving those at the top in the dark about what needs to get better. 

After an employee survey closes, leaders should communicate to the entire organization the short- and long-term changes they plan to implement—and how each connects to the survey results and to the company’s stated values. To build momentum, seniors leaders can start by achieving quick, tangible wins. Often, these involve addressing outdated policies or processes. Managers should also be encouraged to publicly commit to solving a small but important problem their teams face. 

Of course, things don’t always go as planned. If something prevents leaders from taking the actions they promised to take, that should also be clearly communicated.

Put others first

Employees also need to believe that leadership wants to help them. A critical component of trust is the confidence that those at higher levels are genuinely concerned about improving employee well-being and happiness. This kind of benevolence needs to be a habit; a single selfless act will not be enough to earn people’s trust.

Leadership should regularly ask, “How can we better serve our teams?” This might involve more visibly giving credit where it’s due, or working harder to remove the barriers blocking their teams’ ability to make meaningful progress.

Senior leaders can also make it a habit to informally check-in with employees across teams and levels to ask, “Which changes do you think are working, and which ones are not? Is something visibly different?”

By proactively making each of these steps a priority, leaders can earn trust, better understand how to improve employee happiness and motivation, and ultimately build more adaptive, successful organizations.