How to Take the Pulse of Your Employees

Photo: Yuri_Arcurs

Do you want to know how your employees feel about their employer, your company? They may have firm opinions but are hesitant to share too much information in weekly staff meetings and company get-togethers.

Knowing what employees think and feel can be valuable in making sure that your vision is supported by their actions. This information can give you insights needed to lead people effectively.

On a practical level, taking the pulse of your employees can help you to:

  • confirm understanding of policies in order to assure proper execution of new initiatives;
  • uncover and resolve conflicts between employees;
  • create feasible processes and divide responsibilities equitably;
  • develop opportunities for professional development in line with employees’ career goals and company needs.

From being quietly observant to politely intrusive, here are several ways to take the pulse of your employees.

Notice Changes in Behavior

Sudden and sustained differences in an employee’s behavior can indicate career dissatisfaction.

Notice changes in patterns, such as earlier or later arrivals and departures as well as noticeably shorter or longer lunch breaks. Other indicators include less patience with customers and more frequent clashes with coworkers.

Don’t assume that such changes are irrelevant to the workplace, whether they originated from personal or professional concerns. An employee may be adjusting to a lifestyle change (such as a family addition, chronic illness, or relocation) and having temporary difficulties in his personal life. However, these changes may have caused him to rethink his long-term prospects with your company; for example, he may be searching for a new job with higher pay, more opportunity for professional growth, or fewer weekend hours.

Wander, Look and Listen

As a business owner and executive leader, you may spend an inordinate amount of time in your office or on the road, hatching the latest business strategy, analyzing weekly performance numbers, and nurturing relationships with customers. But getting out and seeing day-to-day activities can give you valuable insights that are otherwise unavailable.

Specifically, go to the sales, production, or distribution floor; sit in on meetings; observe conversations with customers. Visit unannounced at various times of the workday. Be unpredictable, gratifying those who work diligently though possibly annoying those who are less motivated.

By wandering around (as championed by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their book In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best Run Companies), you may see customer interactions, vendor discussions, and team collaborations that look precisely as imagined and planned. But you may discover scenarios that make no sense based on directives given to employees.

Investigate questionable situations to get a better take on what your employees are thinking. First, make sure your perception is not flawed (that is, you may have heard just one side of a conversation so ask for clarification). If your understanding is correct and employee actions are out of sync with expectations, find out what is motivating them. For example, they may disagree with policies, believe that procedures are inefficient, feel ill-equipped to handle complexity, or have reservations about asking for guidance.

Let Employees Talk

People love to share their thoughts. Ask employees about their perspectives. Some will complain about everything while others will reveal pertinent information only when prodded repeatedly. Often less vocal employees will give insights that you would have never discerned otherwise. Over time, you will learn who offers trustworthy, useful opinions.

Survey Employees

Many people are more likely to tell you what they think if you ask specific questions and allow them to respond privately. Formal surveys, then, can be useful in understanding employees. Online tools, such as SurveyMonkey or Zoomerang, make the process simple. Consider asking respondents to give ratings on key topics and elaborate through open-ended questions as well. Hire an outside firm to conduct surveys if you want greater expertise in assessing employee sentiment.

Review results and present insights with action plans to employees. In this way, they will know that you are interested in their thoughts and dealing with problems, which further encourages ongoing dialogue.

Scrutinize Problem Solving Techniques

Listen to your employees talk about how they solve problems, independently and collaboratively. Their approaches will tell you volumes about their perspectives on company priorities, sources of any anxiety, and understanding of accountabilities and roles within the organization.

Watch employees divvy tasks in order to deal with problems. Assess mutual trust levels and learn how effectively they work together. A red flag that should prompt inquiry is when one employee shields you from details, saying that she “will handle this” with no elaboration. Very often, this person does not want to risk failure by sharing accountability with a less responsible employee. Probe for details to discover how well (or poorly) your team members are cooperating with each other and determine whether certain departmental and company policies are counterproductive to teamwork.

Understanding employees’ perceptions does not mean that you have to be a slave to their opinions. Use these insights to guide them in making your vision a reality.

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