Nancy Dassouki is HR Business Partner at SurveyMonkey.
It’s not always easy to ask a question in a workplace environment. Executives may think they’re encouraging questions from their employees, but research shows that the people who work for them don’t agree. Our 2017 study of Canadian workers found only four in 10 see “no barriers to asking questions” where they work – a sharp difference from the number of executives who answered the same way.
It’s more common than you may think for employees to feel uneasy asking questions. Our studies found that both men and women are often uncomfortable speaking up at work, which just illustrates how inaccurate common assumptions about who’s comfortable speaking up tend to be. But once employees get over their initial hesitancy, getting them to ask questions can result in some of the most innovative initiatives your company will ever come up with – and your whole organization will reap the benefits.
Below are some steps organizations can take to foster a culture of curiosity.
Lead by example
It’s important for leaders to show employees that it’s okay to ask questions. They can start by asking “What can we do better?” or “What do we consider normal that we shouldn’t?”
For example, as we open a new office in Ottawa, we’ve made it a point to ask for feedback along the way, getting employee input on everything from benefits to the types of cereal in the kitchen, but the most important part is ensuring employees know that they have a voice.
Asking questions enables people to define their own work experience. Which perks would make your employees happier: catered lunches or bigger bonuses? What types of professional training programs do they need? What equipment would they like to see in the new activity room? You can’t possibly anticipate the needs of everyone, from the youngest urban dwellers on your team to the parents supporting a big family.
Rather than having a select group decide what matters to employees, ask your community directly.
For example, prior to our recent IPO, we asked employees to vote on the mission and pillars for our new corporate social responsibility program. We launched the program on the day of our IPO, and made sure to include the feedback employees gave us.
Make curiosity a clear value
Questions are incredibly important for innovation, but asking them in a meeting can be daunting. Employees might not feel like their opinion is relevant. If curiosity isn’t an explicit company-wide value, people will be less likely to voice opinions they’re not confident about. You need to make it clear to every employee that there are no wrong or silly questions.
There are tangible steps companies can make to help employees feel empowered. For example, a CEO can ask employees for their thoughts at critical company junctures. And the leadership team can emphasize the importance of curiosity as a core company value.
Companies can nurture curiosity through multiple channels – from office designs, such as posters and inspirational quotes, to responding to questions raised during town halls, to creating a #greatquestion hashtag and rewarding employees for their critical thinking. Companies can encourage curiosity with an online peer recognition program where employees can thank their colleagues with points exchangeable for gift cards or cash. Taking the time to keep these programs in motion will encourage a culture where no one is afraid to raise their hand when they have a concern or a new idea.
Equally important is for companies to share internal survey findings with employees, either through town halls, team meetings or employee-wide communications. The feedback loop is critical in helping employees understand what the company has learned and what actions will be taken.
Provide feedback at every step
Recruiting, onboarding, professional training programs – there are dozens of touchpoints that can make a major difference in the employee experience, and organizations should ensure they’re doing what’s right for the employee at each stage.
One important step organizations can take is to regularly check in on employees’ sense of belonging. Belonging and inclusion surveys can give valuable insights into what makes employees tick, resulting in new HR programs and career ladders.
Keep the conversation ongoing
Last year, we implemented a new way of conducting performance reviews as a result of the feedback we received from our very own belonging and inclusion survey. The new system, which we call “GIG” (Growth, Impact and Goals), is replacing the outdated practice of checking in with employees once a year. Managers now conduct quarterly conversations with employees, replacing the anxiety and stress that accompany annual reviews with productive, growth-oriented discussions.
Transparency and communication tend to get tougher as companies get bigger, but they’re critical things for companies, if they want their employees to stay with them.
People who don’t trust their employer or feel at home in their office will (rightfully) leave. That’s why seeking feedback and making room for questions indisputably makes a company stronger – helping it to innovate and attract top talent.
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