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A wise (but anonymous!) person once said, “What’s the shortest word in the English language that contains the letters: abcdef? Answer: feedback. Don’t forget that feedback is one of the essential elements of good communication.” Indeed, if communicators want to be successful, then a key part of their job is to have a pulse on what stakeholders are thinking and feeling. And the only way to effectively do this is to have feedback loops. Building in feedback loops is important when evaluating understanding, awareness and behavior change that results from communications. So, what are feedback loops and how can you use them to your advantage?

Feedback loops allow incremental improvements

According to the good ol’ dictionary, a feedback loop is a system for improving a product, process or other system by collecting and reacting to users’ comments. It’s basically where the output of a system becomes the input. And so on. Any system that takes processed information and uses it to control or regulate itself is a feedback loop.

This simple idea is found in many places. According to Fulcrum, one of these examples is homeostasis of the human body. For example, thermoregulation. Thermoregulation is the process that allows our body to maintain its core internal temperature. Our liver and muscle contractions create this heat to adjust or improve our body’s temperature.

In the same way, we can use feedback loops to “adjust the temperature” or change how we communicate within organizations. In doing so, we’re able to make incremental improvements in our communications strategy and tactics. This, ultimately, effects the attitude, opinion or behavioral change we seek.

As you move through a change within a company, collecting feedback from people impacted by the change is a great way to monitor the effectiveness of your communications efforts. It also helps you create two-way dialogue and more meaningful exchange of ideas. At the end of the day, feedback loops provide valuable information on whether the messages you’re sharing are hitting the mark.

Imbedding feedback loops

In another blogpost, we touched on ways to checkpoint your communications on a regular basis. Here, we highlight some of those was as well as offer a few new ideas.

Use technology

When it comes to getting feedback on your work, technology can be your friend. As we discussed a recent blogpost, tracking tools such as Constant Contact and similar applications can give you real-time information on who’s accessing your content (via open rates) and for how long, how often and why (what they’re reading). Internal social media platforms like Yammer can give you great insights into what topics people and interested in, what they’re thinking and feeling about the organization, and much more. You can also track click-throughs on your intranet, blogs and other digital platforms.

Use your presence

Another way to get feedback on specific employee topics and how your messaging regarding those topics is resonating is through listening sessions. Often conducted by organizational leadership, such sessions can provide a treasure trove of information to act on. As the name implies, such sessions are for listening. Not for organizational leadership to tell its side of the story or promote its position on a specific topic. For this reason, listening sessions can be stressful, particularly for newer executives who’ve never been “exposed” in such a way. No one likes to hear that his or her baby is ugly! And for many executives, their organization is their baby!

Communicators can and should support organizational leadership in arranging and facilitating listening sessions. You can serve a vital function by supporting the executive in developing the questions, scribing the session and documenting any necessary follow-up. You should also make note of how the executive facilitated the meeting and, as needed, provide follow-up coaching. For example, did she get defensive at any particular person or topic? If so, provide tips on how she can handle the situation better next time.

Other useful tips

  • Be clear about the purpose of the session: Make sure to clearly communicate the objective of the listening session in the meeting invitation and at the beginning of the session. If you want feedback on a specific topic, say so. If it’s a more general session, be clear about that, too.
  • Keep the session small: Do not make a listening session a town hall meeting. Listening sessions should be smaller engagements (fewer than 12 people) that allow everyone to participate.
  • Strive for specificity: If an employee makes an assertion or claim, ask him or her to back it up with an example. But make sure the example doesn’t violate the confidences of another person. It’s easy for anyone to air a vague grievance. An example makes it real.
  • Follow-up: If an employee raises a question that can’t be answered during the session, or other discussion requires follow-up, make sure the follow-up occurs within a reasonable timeframe. We’d suggest five business days.

Use formal and informal research, but go easy!

A third way to get feedback is through tried and true research methods like online surveys and polls. Our only caution with surveys is that in many organizations, employees face survey fatigue. There’s the annual employee engagement survey. The quarterly employee engagement survey. The compensation and benefits survey your HR firm wants to do. Sometimes, the survey is about feedback! So, if you’re going to do a poll or survey, make sure you know the environment, including the employee mood and other surveys that are happening at the same time.

Surveys

Surveys can be qualitative or quantitative in nature. To learn more about the difference between these two, check out our blogpost on research methods. You can survey your audience to determine the level of awareness, understanding and change in behaviors at periodic intervals. You can also do readership surveys, which assess the readership of a specific publication or content and what action employees have taken as a result.

A similar tool is a poll. Often shorter than a survey, a poll is not statistically valid. That said, they can give you a high-level sense of how your messaging is impacting your audience.

1:1 interviews or focus groups

Sometimes the best way to find out what people are doing or not doing in response to your communication efforts is to ask them face-to-face. Again, such tools are not statistically valid, but they can uncover insights that can point to next steps to get at root perceptions. And today’s focus groups don’t need to involve physical presence. Many focus groups can be conducted online or by telepresence.

Focus groups are different from listening sessions. First, they serve a different purpose in that they’re often used to uncover attitudes and perceptions that employee wouldn’t be comfortable sharing with a member of leadership in the room. As such, they’re facilitated by a neutral party. Usually by someone outside the organization.

Go old-school

If you’re publishing materials, one way to track interest in your content is to determine how many people are picking up what you’re putting down. It’s that simple!

Putting your findings to use

If we were to ask you if your organization regularly conducts employee surveys, most of you’d probably say yes. If we then asked whether you knew the results of that information, we’d have a fewer show of hands. And even fewer on whether anything was done because of the information.

Sadly, findings from OfficeVibe proves this point:

  • 20% of employees said their boss never bothered to follow up any concerns raised
  • 52% reviewed survey results but took no action
  • 27% of managers never review survey results at all
  • 48% of senior managers reported the surveys were highly valuable, while 45% of employees say surveys had little or no value

Don’t be afraid to report out the findings

So, how do you make sure the feedback loops you built are worth it? It’s imperative that you report out the findings. After all, workplaces that share results are more likely to make meaningful change. Here’s some tips on how to go about doing that.

Share results

Regardless of the type of tool used to get the feedback, consider this rollout process for sharing the results:

  • Share overall results with senior leadership first. If there’s a wide gap between top leadership’s perceptions and line staff (and there often is), use that as an opportunity for discussion. Discuss/brainstorm with leaders about top-level actions that need to be taken to address concerns or opportunities raised in the feedback. Set benchmarks for when these steps will be taken and completed.
  • Share overall results with managers, as well as the findings from their specific function. Set the expectation that they need to review the functional-level findings. And give them a deadline by when they need to provide an action plan on next steps, or rationale on why they will not act on specific information. And, make sure to thank them for sharing their thoughts!
  • Share overall results with employees within broader communications (e.g., e-newsletters or via email if a smaller organization). Say what findings you’ll act on, and when. And if you’re not going to do something with a particular aspect of the findings, make that known too, and why.
  • Share functional-level findings, via managers, with respective employees. Again, communicate what findings you’ll act on and by when, and what won’t be acted on and why.
  • Report out progress on a regular basis. Through such transparency, you build trust. You also build trust and respect by sharing what you won’t be acting on. Nothing is more frustrating to employees than when their employee and bosses hype up what will change because of feedback and then see nothing happen. Also, progress updates are an opportunity to again thank employees for their feedback.
  • Calibrate communications tools, processes and efforts to fill the gaps identified in the findings and to maximize the opportunities.

Summary

We feel it’s important to bring this topic full circle and repeat the quote we started with, “Feedback is one of the essential elements of good communication.” Building in feedback loops should be part of any communications campaign to effectively and, in real-time, evaluate understanding, awareness and behavior change and then to adjust as needed. Many tools are available to gather feedback. But regardless of what tool is used, it’s important to share findings with top leaders, managers and line staff and be clear about what findings you’ll act on, and what you won’t. Set deadlines for implementation, and be sure to share progress updates through storytelling.

How has your organization built in feedback loops? Do you need support in creating feedback loops and creating an effective communications strategy to update employees on progress? If so, we’d love to hear from you.