A brief guide to upward feedback (and why frontline organizations struggle to get it)

Posted on: January 12, 2024Updated on: April 17, 2024By: Hiba Amin

Upward feedback is essential to any organization. After all, for any relationship to succeed, two-way communication needs to occur. Both individuals should be able to share feedback, listen and change their actions and behaviors to continue to improve the relationship for both parties. 

The same goes for companies. According to LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends Report, employee experience is becoming more and more important for the new working generation. What better way to improve your employee experience than by talking to your employees?

Regardless of your organization’s size, it’s important that you not only deliver top-down feedback, but rather spend time collecting and listening to upward feedback from your employees.

When it comes to collecting upward feedback, there are a lot of challenges that prevent frontline organizations from doing it effectively. Let’s walk through the importance of upward feedback and common hurdles that frontline organizations face.

What is upward feedback? 

Upward feedback is feedback that’s given or received from the bottom up—from your staff to head office. It’s important that managers and higher-ups consistently have a pulse on the good, the bad and the ugly. The best way to do that is through upward feedback.

Companies that prioritize upward feedback see a lot of benefits:

  • They can address changing customer needs as they come up from the very people who talk to your customers the most
  • They empower employees to drive business outcomes by understanding what motivates them most
  • They become employers-of-choice by fostering a listening culture where employees feel safe sharing ideas
  • They avoid unnecessary turnover from disgruntled or disengaged employees by understanding the problems they face and taking action to resolve those issues

In other words: listening to what your employees have to say matters.

In fact, according to the iceberg of ignorance, only 4% of an organization’s front-line problems are known by top executives, 9% by middle management, 74% by team leads and 100% by employees. So, if your company’s looking to better understand where you can improve and create a workplace culture that retains employees, it’s time to get more upward feedback!

The challenges of collecting upward feedback in frontline industries

Collecting employee feedback is hard in any organization, but it’s particularly challenging in deskless and frontline organizations—and it’s getting worse. In fact, our recent research found that only 39% of frontline workers feel heard. Here are five hurdles that face frontline organizations when collecting upward feedback:

1. Psychological safety is lower

Originally coined by Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is a “sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.” Ultimately, this means that employees feel safe to share feedback, ideas, or general comments without fear of repercussions.

When psychological safety is low, it’s hard for employees to engage in meaningful conversation, especially ones where they’re expected to share constructive feedback with people higher up. For employees to share their honest thoughts with supervisors or upper management, they need to feel safe to do so.

For upper management, creating that safe space can be even harder because they don’t get to build rapport and trust on the job every day. This poses a real challenge for frontline workforces when it comes to upward feedback. If you can’t create a psychologically safe space, it will be virtually impossible to receive helpful and honest feedback.

2. Fractured communication between regions

When you get large enough to have stores in multiple regions, it makes things harder to standardize across the organization, especially when it comes to feedback. Not to mention the feedback you get back will likely be different from region to region.

It’s also difficult to maintain timelines for collecting feedback from region to region, especially when you look at how fast each store, region, or floor supervisor works. If one store shares feedback two months prior to another store, then your team will likely delay making any meaningful change for at least two months. And if an organization is lacking standardized procedures across various regions, that leads to misaligned feedback. 

3. Lack of upward feedback channels

When you work in a deskbound organization, there are many formalities that are put into place with a focus on exchanging feedback, like one-on-one meetings, 360 degree reviews and quarterly or annual performance reviews. There are countless opportunities available for these deskbound employees to receive and share feedback.

This isn’t true for frontlines. Whether they’re full or part-time employees, there are rarely opportunities granted for these front line workers to share feedback with store managers and corporate. 

4. Less tech in place (especially in non-BYOD workplaces)

The fastest way to request and collect feedback is no longer pen and paper (surprise, surprise!). For deskbound employees, there’s plenty of tech to harvest feedback beyond the meetings and reviews we mentioned above. With frontline workforces, it’s more tricky. Some organizations use digital communication platforms (like Axonify!) to connect teams and create a two-way communication channel between frontline workers and head office. Without these tools and policies in place, employees are no longer sharing feedback during work hours when their experiences and memories are fresh. 

5. Difficulties reviewing upward feedback at scale

Frontline industries have some of the highest turnover rates. With such high risk of turnover, it’s important that organizations source and action feedback as soon as possible. But with larger frontline organizations with thousands—or even hundreds of thousands—of employees, it becomes harder and harder to not only collect employee feedback, but also act on feedback at scale

For frontline organizations to thrive, two-way communication must occur frequently. Employees must be able to share feedback with head office, and organizations should facilitate safe spaces where feedback is encouraged. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s easy for frontline organizations to make feedback mistakes and come up against hurdles, especially when they’re struggling to scale up their processes to reflect their massive workforces. But with the right processes and tools in place to overcome these challenges, the results speak for themselves: empowered and engaged workers who are committed to sharing the valuable intel that can drive meaningful results at your organization. 

Hiba Amin

Hiba Amin is a content creator and marketing professional.

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