As an entrepreneur or executive, you often get caught up in the "bigger picture" and the intricacies of your leadership role. But by doing so, it is possible to become disconnected from the day-to-day operations of your business, particularly your impact on employees, customers and suppliers.
When you are only thinking about this broad view, you may notice a downturn in sales, more customer complaints, or employee productivity taking a dive. You may begin to question the way in which you lead the organization, spending many long, exasperating hours trying to determine why your business is not moving in the right direction. That is when the "human-side" of the operation -- the satisfaction of employees, customers and others who interact with the company -- is negatively impacted.
It's at this point that you'd better start asking questions.
To improve employee engagement and make positive changes in the workplace, leaders should be asking employees for their honest opinion about what is working -- or not working -- in the organization. If handled properly, the results can yield feedback that may enable you to bolster morale, streamline systems and increase customer satisfaction. It may even help you to become a better leader.
To get employees talking, you don't need to have them fill out a huge questionnaire. Instead start with these four simple questions.
1. What are we doing when operating at our best? The goal here is to extract out best practices. The answers you receive will also speak to the culture of the organization and will allow you to leverage those best practices in your marketing collateral as well as when recruiting employees.
2. What are you hearing customers say about our business? The objective of this inquiry is to capture -- directly from the front line -- what customers or clients are saying. Look carefully for emerging patterns. For example, if several employees indicate that customers complain about the length of time that it takes for someone to answer the phone or the length of time that a customer was put on hold when calling, then you know you are on to something. Once these patterns are established, you will have a better idea of how to implement changes to systems, processes and policies, in order to deal with these criticisms.
3. If you were in my shoes and could make all the decisions, what would you do and why? The purpose of this question is three-fold. First, it engages the employee and demonstrates that management cares about what they think. Second, it puts part of the responsibility on the employee to think more like a leader and put themselves in your shoes. Not only does this instigate creative thought, but it also generates empathy for the responsibilities of company leadership. Most importantly, since the employee is closest to the customer, they will be able to suggest clearly-defined opportunities for improvement.
4. What is the "one essential thing" I need to know in order to make this business a success? This question gets to the heart of how your organization's time, resources and initiative should be directed in order to prosper. Once again, look for patterns and, if possible, further validate those findings through customer surveys or focus groups.
Be aware that some associates may be fearful of backlash and not be willing to tell it like it is. To avoid this response, meet in small groups, one-on-one (or even allow anonymity) during the process. Determine what works best for your company and don't forget to show appreciation for the feedback you receive. Recognize that you may be inclined to disagree or provide an explanation for some of your employee's reactions -- so try to keep an open mind.
This exercise achieves multiple benefits. You acquire worthwhile data and, at the same time, the employee will feel that they are recognized, heard and respected.
Take your employee's feedback and work with it. Build a supportive environment that promotes creativity. Get clear about the relationships between associates, suppliers and customers. Keep it positive and let your employees know that you are receptive to new ideas. Finally, do a little soul searching on your own contribution. Use your insight and focused attention to instil confidence and commitment in your employees that will support them in their efforts to do their very best for your organization.
The original version of this article first appeared on Entrepreneur.com Copyright 2014 by Entrepreneur Media, Inc. All rights reserved.