How A Startup Helps Employees Speak Their Minds Without Fear Of Getting Fired

The biggest problem with the annual review? That it only happens once a year. So TINYpulse founder David Niu talked to entrepreneurs around the world and found a better way. Now managers aren't blindsided by resigning employees and workers can finally speak their minds.

What would you say to your supervisor if you didn’t fear your feedback would be met with a pink slip and a gentle shove out the company door?

Of course a bad boss can make work-life hell, but even worse is an unhappy office. No one wants to lose a star staffer with just two week's notice.

It’s the reason David Niu started TINYpulse. Now just a year old, the Seattle-based startup has a 300+ growing roster of companies using its feedback technology from teams at Amazon to Clickbank, GE to Ticketmaster. But the journey to launch the company didn’t happen immediately.

Finding a Way to Improve Feedback

As a management consultant, Niu had to endure the processing of lengthy employee satisfaction surveys annually. By the time the results were logged, he says, it was months later and everything would have changed—not necessarily for the better. “I definitely didn't feel that management was acknowledging my voice even though I was earnest in my feedback,” he says.

Yet habits, once formed, are hard to break. So, Niu implemented the annual survey at each of his startups. It wasn’t until Niu hit the road for a six-month "careercation," that he stumble upon a solution.

Niu interviewed over 35 entrepreneurs from a winemaker in New Zealand to a fruit trader in China to a financial services consultant in Korea about best practices when it came to leadership, culture, and managing people. He ended every interview with one question: "What's one pain point you have around managing people that, if I took away, you'd gladly pay for?"

“Regardless of industry, size, or geography the most haunting feeling for any leader is when an employee gives their two weeks notice out of the blue,” Niu asserts. That confirmed what he already knew: a company’s people and culture were important strategic advantages.

Reviewing them only at year’s end left a lot unspoken and potentially hazardous to the health of the business. While Niu constantly reviewed finances, strategy, product, he, like many other leaders, assumed the staff was fine until they headed out the door to work for someone else.

Even without losing key employees, this lack of give and take between management and staff comes at a potentially high cost. Gallup findings estimate disengaged workers cost U.S. businesses between $450 billion to $550 billion in lost productivity per year. “I became inspired to give these leaders an ongoing pulse on how happy, frustrated, and burnt out their team is,” he says, before any issues became “cancerous.”

Making Feedback Small Enough to Scale

Now that there are multiple platforms to tackle any productivity issue, Niu’s idea for gathering feedback with TINYpulse isn’t reinventing the wheel. Indeed loyal readers of Fast Company will remember how 15Five’s cloud-based software creates a constant line of communication that encourages employees to share successes as well as the need for support based on answering five questions. Niu points out that 15Five’s founder David Hassell is also a client of TINYpulse.

The way TINYpulse works is to email employees just one question each week. Though the questions change frequently, the one that asks how happy staff is at work is on repeat. Niu admits he doesn’t use 15Five but understands its helpful for status updates and project management. TINYpulse, he contends, keeps leaders’ finger on the pulse of the entire organization, anonymously. This is key, he says, to stay on top of sentiment.

Though juggernauts such as Target gather feedback from 300,000+ team members, it takes a village to wade through all the responses. Niu says there’s a clear case for a short cut. “Large organizations either conduct annual surveys and get analysis paralysis since if you have 50,000 employees and ask them 50 questions, then you can potentially have 2,500,000 responses to sort through for trends,” he observes. Even the CEO of a 1,000-person company would have to take 83 hours a week reading responses from a 15Five survey.

You Have To Scale Listening, Too

“The pain seems even more acute at larger organizations,” Niu argues, “Since CEOs of smaller companies may assume they already know what's going on since there aren't many employees.” Niu points to TINYpulse’s existing enterprise customers such as HubSpot, San Diego Gas and Electric, and Oxfam using the technology to help improve recognition, retention, and results. “By asking just one question each time, we keep the responses more focused so it's easier to identify trends and proposed action to spark positive change,” he says.

Anonymous vs. Transparent

Like the suggestion box of yore, TINYpulse aims to keep comments anonymous. Niu does admit that an employer’s internet can be subject to snoop on all the data going in and out with a packet sniffer. He maintains the CEOs who sign up for TINYpulse genuinely do want to improve. “This exact question was asked by an employee when I spoke to HubSpot this week, and another employee answered it by saying, ‘Those types of companies aren't going to care and use TINYpulse in the first place,’" he asserts.

Niu doesn’t think that the current culture of oversharing and openness will ever usher in a time when companies don’t need to gather feedback. “I think that the electronic channel is another way to get a gauge on a company's most valuable investment—their people,” he says. Tech won’t ever eliminate the need for one-on-one discourse, either, he says. It’s complementary and helps spur more transparency within a company. “In fact,” he says, “with younger folks online, playing video games, and texting, this may be the new normal and preferred method to start conversation around engagement and morale.”

Bottom Line: Niu believes feedback offers everyone a voice. “Often a CEO will ask me if they should complete the TINYpulses,” he says. “I reply by asking them, "Are you part of your company's culture?" They then realize that they also have a voice that is no louder yet no softer than anyone else when it comes to giving feedback. This provides another channel and outlet to honestly share feedback and praise.”

Image: Flickr user allnightavenue]

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