In recent times, it has become clear that we are people with a basic need to feel connected to one another. We have been challenged, which is why we are moving in the slipstream of other forward-thinkers and predicting a post-COVID-19 time with an even greater need for dialog, feedback and the “human touch”.
We hardly need to mention that HR plays an important role in creating the frameworks for the “human touch”, where there is a focus on both satisfaction and leadership in order to generate the desired results. In many organizations, this work is already performed professionally within the HR annual wheel model, e.g. via satisfaction measurements, 360-degree management evaluations, management team evaluations and staff development interviews/management development interviews, etc. We know that this is carried out with varying quality in the different corners of the organization. Therefore, in these new times, both training and dialog are necessary before, during and after all these efforts aimed at ensuring a good, human feedback culture!
In order to promote dialog, feedback and strengthened relations, you need management. Through management of the COVID situation, it has become clear that not all managers paid attention to these entirely basic human needs – and failed to put them on the agenda. In 2016, the international management expert Jack Zenger discovered that more than 85% of Fortune 500 companies used 360-degree feedback processes as a cornerstone of their general management development. These were often carried out using a questionnaire, and even though the process is very professional, no work is done with the feedback in the reports. The problem is that it is the manager’s responsibility to handle further development with the employees – and this often has no consequences (London, et al., 1997) if the manager does not follow up through dialog and if this does not lead to specific changes in behavior. All the failed attempts – or lack of attempts – after the evaluation have a negative impact on satisfaction along the way (Storch, J. et al., 2010). This also applies even if the manager believes that the feedback in the report is useful – so, therefore, the dialog concerning this feedback is critical (London, et al., 1997). Prioritizing feedback was a distinctive challenge for managers prior to COVID-19, and in the new reality, it has become an even more important task.
HR’s work with establishing the right structure to support the feedback culture could start in the more structured, continuous HR processes, e.g. the measurements. Here, one could start with:
1. Focus on dialog in the evaluation of satisfaction and management
Regardless of whether the method is a questionnaire with follow-up dialog – or whether it takes place through dialog without numbers and graphs, the focus should be on determining which structure to create for holding the dialog as well as the process before during and after. Skive Municipality is an organization that led the way with this agenda (120 managers and 4,500 employees) in 2017. In 2021, they stated: “We continue to evaluate management and satisfaction through dialog. Today, it’s a key part of our culture. It’s something both managers and employees point to with pride because it is consistent with our self-understanding and culture with respect to involvement and dialog” - Ricki Laursen, Head of HR. In the evaluation following the first run in 2017, all managers and employee representatives answered “YES” to the question: ”Did you have the opportunity to talk about what was important to you with respect to management and satisfaction?” in the subsequent evaluation of the concept (‘Drop the questionnaire and jump just straight into development!’ article only in Danish). This is one reason why Skive Municipality shared its experience with many other organizations that wanted to follow the same relation-based path. Regardless of whether you choose a questionnaire, dialog, observation or something entirely different as the primary method of evaluation – dialog must take center stage.
We can now see that, at the onset of COVID-19, lots of companies succeeded with good initiatives that affected satisfaction positively. There are therefore lots of good things that just need to be passed on and maintained. However, we can now see a “bump” in this trend. Efforts are not being maintained in the same way as at the beginning, and this is negatively affecting satisfaction.
Perhaps there is a bit of a “Hawthorne effect” in play. This also fits with other scientific studies of the Danish population under COVID-19, which show that the working community and relations are under pressure (Danish research project supported by Det Nationale Forskningscenter for Arbejdsmiljø). At the same time, several pension companies are seeing a massive increase in the number psychologist treatments, in part due to stress. Relations are important when things are going well – and even more so during times of crisis. When companies are concerned with their employees and the relations, it affects satisfaction.
2. Make sure that the dialogs are taking place
With respect to the previously-mentioned measurements, it is good practice never to obtain questionnaire feedback without subsequent dialog with all feedback providers (Peiperl, M., 2001) & (Bracken & Rose, 2011). The follow-up dialogs are critical for the next evaluation since both the response percentage and the honesty of the responses are negatively affected if no dialogs are held (Bracken, et al, 2001). Here it is important to keep each other updated on the development activities that have been agreed based on the previously-received feedback. Do we stick to the plan sufficiently when we go from questionnaires/feedback to development? When we need to maintain a focus on development? – and then to ask for feedback again? Do we close the loop?
Dialogs can be held virtually, and just like during physical meetings, it is a good idea to break up the employees/management colleagues into groups and then let the groups report to the manager in a subsequent plenary dialog. This contributes to making the dialogs more human. This improves peace of mind, and a small degree of anonymity is incorporated – while having an open dialog. In this regard, we know that managers who carry out feedback sessions improve their effectiveness as managers (Goldsmith & Underhill, 2001). They therefore begin their management development just by engaging in the dialog.
3. Ensure training – and practice these competences in your daily life
In the case above with dialog-based evaluations, managers and selected trusted employees received training in holding dialogs and providing feedback. Generally we can see that training in feedback and dialog before and after the HR activities has a positive effect on the extent to which the dialogs are held subsequently. When there is training within a measurement, we can very specifically see this reflected in a higher response percentage. We see this as an expression of a greater willingness to provide feedback and enter into the whole dialog process. For instance, at Rebild Municipality, there was a 10-12% higher response rate on the management evaluation in the areas that participated in the training sessions before the questionnaire was sent out, as compared to those that did not (‘Increase the response rate of your next measurement!’ - article only available in Danish). Training is critical for learning to control your own defensive mechanisms (we all have them – and they work differently in us, so we need to learn to understand them), creating a culture in the department where it is natural to ask for and provide feedback, and of course, in the very specific feedback dialogs. We can see that the probability of a manager engaging in dialog increases significantly with prior training. This seems logical since the manager has thus already tried being in the situations he/she is afraid of – and has handled them well in training.
How can HR help ensure that we stay human in a technology-driven world – both during and after COVID? We can start by looking at the HR processes and ensuring dialog and close involvement in this regard. In addition, we will look at how technology can become a good partner in enabling us to retain a focus on our relationships. There are powerful tools to help you do this, and we need to use these tools instead of thinking we need to wait until it is possible to meet physically. Most likely, we will also look at the future working life, where virtual meetings will increasingly be the norm.
If we are to stay human in a technology-driven world, feedback and close dialog should not be forgotten when we are physically apart. A good common structure should be created to strengthen the feedback culture.
First published in the magazine ‘HR Chefen’ April 2021 by Dansk HR