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While many small business owners go to great lengths to provide constructive criticism to their employees, very few create the opportunity in reverse. I believe that owners should seek feedback not only on their performance, but on how their businesses are perceived by employees.
I must admit, all the years running businesses, I was pretty confident that I had my finger on the pulse of employee morale and knew where I needed to improve. I was wrong. Until I gave my staff the medium with which to communicate advice and constructive feedback, I was missing out. I was taking pieces of conversations and anecdotal scenarios and incorrectly connecting them. But when I provided a method of feedback, I learned a lot about my business and myself.
Being your own boss doesn't mean you have no one answer to. Instead I'd argue that, as an owner of a small business, you ultimately have to answer to just about everyone inside and outside your organization. But as it stands, there are too few opportunities for small business owners to be criticized or encouraged.
Some small businesses may have advisory boards or formal boards of directors, while others have coaches or consultants who aren't afraid to tell it like it is. That's all valuable, but at a deeper level, owners need to give their employees the opportunity to offer advice and flag concerns.
The most effective and low-tech way to solicit advice is to use an anonymous, locked, comment box that is accessible to all employees. A comment box allows even the most shy of staffers send a message. In an ideal world, all bosses have an open door policy and welcome feedback from employees, but even the most confident of employees won't always tell you how it is.
I tried this in one of my businesses and while not all of the feedback was at the maturity level I would have hoped, there were often some great nuggets I could use to build a better business. Whenever a suggestion from the comment box was implemented, I always made sure it was known and appreciated in hopes that those little successes would encourage others to participate.
Occasionally the feedback was about me and my style, but mostly it was real simple suggestions that may have been so minor that I would have never appreciated their value. However, once implemented, it had a positive influence on the lives of the employees.
Later in my entrepreneurial career, I was involved in a business that created a whistle blower hot-line (by phone, text and e-mail) carried out by a third party provider and who reported directly to one of the directors on our board. Intended for reporting fraudulent acts by senior managers or other board members, this was fairly sophisticated and likely a bit much for your average small- to medium-sized business.
Nevertheless,owners need to appreciate that they're in a position of power and influence over their employees and as approachable as they may be, they should set up a feedback system. In the absence of a mechanism to allow your staff to make suggestions and complaints without fear of repercussion, you may not be hearing the whole truth and missing out on simple or critical opportunities for improvement. Plus, when you keep it simple, it's practically free.
Chris Griffiths is the Toronto-based director of fine tune consulting, a boutique management consulting practice. Over the past 20 years, he has started or acquired and exited seven businesses.