The Best Way to Respond to Negative Employee Feedback


Companies can only reach their full potential when their employees are engaged.

That's because engaged employees are happier and more productive than their forlorn peers. These workers love coming to the office every day and show up ready to make a difference.

Does your company care about employee engagement? If so, what do you do to determine engagement levels?

We know that nothing gets at the heart of the engagement issue like the best tool for measuring it — employee engagement surveys.

If you’re planning to check in with your workforce, kudos to you.

But be prepared: The results may not always paint a rosy picture of what’s going on inside your organization.

When faced with negative feedback, it’s tempting to do nothing or take broad, overarching steps that totally reverse course on what you’ve been doing. Resist the temptation  especially with the former approach. Not acting on a survey may cause greater damage to employee engagement than not taking a survey in the first place.

Research from BlessingWhite discovered the following:

  • 27% of employees reported being engaged when their company took no action to support employee engagement
  • This number drops to 24% for employees who took a survey with no follow-up

There’s also more at stake than just increased disengagement, including employee turnover. Consider what a CareerBuilder study found:

  • 48% employees would stay with a company that asks them what they want and puts that feedback into action

The best way to respond to negative feedback is with clear, actionable goals  not all of which have to be big shake-ups. 

Gallup, which has studied employee engagement for decades, notes that "employees expect and need resolution, and one of the best ways to do this is through action planning.”

That’s a process in which organizations discuss survey results, identify specific issues to target for overall improvement, and create a plan to enact necessary changes.

Focus on what employees have told you isn’t working, take specific steps, and you might just turn lemons into lemonade.

Here’s a seven-step game plan you can follow when dealing with negative survey results:


01. Communicate

Don’t hide survey results — even if they reveal widespread dissatisfaction or the findings seem embarrassing. Keeping feedback away from employees only deepens any mistrust that may already exist.

Share the survey results with employees in a way that highlights both the good and the bad. Resist the urge to put a positive spin on the negative feedback. Acknowledge that there are things you need to work on.

And, most importantly, be sure to clearly outline the steps you’ll be taking to create an action plan.

As noted in our Advanced Guide to Pulsing, increasing communication is a great way to transform company culture for the better.



02. Focus

With a barrage of negative feedback thrown your way, it’s easy to get the sense that every problem has to be solved to improve engagement levels.

Believe it or not, doing too much at once may actually harm your efforts to improve things because it stretches everyone, especially managers, too thin.

What's more, our research has revealed that employees spend less and less time answering every subsequent question they're asked in engagement surveys.


So instead of asking every question possible, select only a few key issues to work on. You'll get better data.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to how you should choose what to focus on. You can select issues across departments or choose the top problems facing each department individually.

Ideally, you’ll be selecting issues that were repeatedly brought up by multiple employees in the survey as these problems could be characterized as systemic.


03. Clarify

As you’re narrowing down the focus on key issues, it’s also important to get clarification from the source. In this case, that’s your employees.

For example, employees may have said that they’re not satisfied with the way their managers communicate. It would be easy to assume what they’re looking for is more communication because they’re not getting enough.

However, asking employees to put into words what “good communication” means to them may surprise you. You could find out instead that their dissatisfaction stems from the type of communication they’re receiving from their managers rather than the frequency.


04. Brainstorm

If you’re committed to improvement, you should also be committed to trying new approaches. Conduct a brainstorming process to collect ideas, whether in working groups, as Gallup researchers suggest, or within smaller teams in each specific department.

Our previous research found that almost one in five responses from employees on surveys included a suggestion. Be sure to include these ideas in the process.

Of course, managers and leadership should bring ideas to the table as well and not expect employees to be the only source for solutions.

maya-rudolphSOURCE: GIPHY


05. Set goals

Once you have a pool of ideas to draw from, it’s time to decide what can be accomplished, and by whom.

Clear goals are important because they motivate both frontline employees and leadership to work towards improving the workplace with concrete steps. They’re also measurable, so it’s easy to assess the process along the way and make changes if necessary. 

Gallup researchers note that “[a] number of mechanisms need to be in place for goals to make a difference” — including communication, agreement, and commitment.

Everyone involved needs to buy into the goals, which is only possible in an environment where open discussion is valued. So managers need to regularly facilitate honest conversations around the proposed goals.


06. Evaluate

Ideally, you’ll be evaluating your action plan along the way, especially once you’ve established goals.

Still, if you’ve made a number of changes across departments, you’ll want overall feedback on whether these changes have made a positive difference.

That’s right — time for another survey!

Whether this is as all-encompassing as the last one is up to you. But taking another pulse is the best way to get insight into whether the changes you’ve made along the way have added up to improving workplace culture and employee engagement.

Don't worry that your employees will be repulsed by yet another survey — quite the contrary. Our research proves that employees overwhelmingly support frequent engagement surveys.


07. Continue

The process doesn’t end after the next survey.

The best workplaces are those where managers and leadership are committed to continuing to work alongside their employees to improve things.

Maybe you’ve accomplished all the goals you set in your action plan. But there’s always something more you can do. If you want to make your company the best place to be, your work is never really done. Strive for continuous improvement. 


Employee surveys are an excellent tool to measure employee engagement. But surveys without follow-up action are useless and could even be detrimental to your success.

Negative feedback from a survey can be alarming — and perhaps even embarrassing.

But the best response is a clear, constructive action plan.

Do that, and you’ll not just be measuring employee engagement — you’ll be actively supporting it.


Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in July 2015 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness. 



Free Guide to Pulsing Employee Surveys


Dora Wang

Dora Wang

June 29, 2017



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