Sarah Lee


February 5, 2024

Does everyone at your startup say they're happy? You may have a problem

It has to be obvious to employees that they won’t be reprimanded or treated differently if they share their thoughts

Sarah Lee

4 min read

Everybody wants their startup to run like a well-oiled machine, with employees who are happy to be there. Positive feedback is good, but exclusively positive feedback provides no help in identifying areas for improvement and can be a sign your staff aren't comfortable voicing dissent. 

In my capacity as a startup founder, and also chief of staff, when I receive exclusively positive reviews from employees, it raises a red flag. It makes me wonder if people aren’t comfortable giving honest feedback, and why that might be. 

It also raises a question of respect. Do our team members not think we respect their opinions, or do they not respect us enough to believe we will listen?


Are we being naive when we take the appearance of happiness at face value?

Or have we inadvertently fostered a dynamic where people stay in positions they don’t like out of loyalty rather than an actual desire to be part of the company’s growth? 

In this article, I will share the tools that have helped my startup cultivate an open culture that actively seeks feedback and embraces negative responses as golden nuggets that help our company improve. 

Encouraging open feedback from multiple angles

At a startup, getting anything done can be difficult if employees are unhappy, unfulfilled or unmotivated. There are various reasons someone may exhibit these feelings, but I believe the best way to understand them and work toward solutions is to ask. 

Nobody expects employees to skip into the office or whistle while working.

I’ve seen firsthand the power of employee satisfaction surveys when done with intent and regularity. But asking 30+ questions once a year for the sake of it doesn’t yield much value.

My startup uses a framework where the survey is sent every month — with five questions only. It takes less than a minute to fill it out, and the questions chosen are easy to take immediate action on if we see steep shifts over time. The monthly cadence helps us to detect patterns, where it would be difficult to do so if we just surveyed yearly. 

This comes with a catch though — responses must be fully honest and not tempered to protect egos or office politics. Inherent power dynamics between employers and employees can pressure team members to hide negative feedback or avoid challenging company principles.

It’s therefore wise to also provide opportunities for anonymous input that employees know won’t threaten relationships or standings. When we introduced anonymous questions at all-hands meetings, we immediately began receiving significantly more constructive, useful questions and feedback, including sensitive questions about compensation and benefits.

It's also crucial to complement surveys and all-hands meetings with other feedback mechanisms, such as retros and regular development and performance reviews to create multiple avenues for employees to share their thoughts.

Communication standards come from leadership

Fostering an honest and open dialogue must start at the top. If a founder constructs conversations in a way that discourages deeper feedback, what is the incentive for a team member to file a complaint, raise an issue or even ask a question?

It has to be obvious to employees that they won’t be reprimanded or treated differently if they share their thoughts.


In practice, this means leaders closing the feedback loop by addressing team members’ concerns in real, meaningful ways. Whether that means having follow up discussions or taking direct action, it’s critical to acknowledge the issue and ensure staff opinions are respected. 

On the leadership team, we’re constantly asking ourselves if we’ve made enough of an effort to actively seek constructive feedback. As a result, we remain cognisant of the number of feedback windows we’re providing our employees and ensure these windows are effectively communicated.  

We also make a concerted effort to be involved in the onboarding process for each new employee. We as senior leadership want new employees to feel like they know us. As a startup founder, that’s pretty easy to do in the beginning when you have few employees, but as you grow, it’s very easy to become that mythical CEO/founder that’s spoken of, but never spoken with.

My cofounder and I meet with every new employee as part of their onboarding process. As the old saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a great first impression. We want to get it right from the start.

Happy employees don’t always have to smile

The idea of a “happy employee” sounds rosy and simplistic, but nobody expects employees to skip into the office or whistle while working. Wellbeing goes much deeper, reaching into fulfilment, satisfaction and a sense of belonging and purpose.

In conclusion, the emphasis on employee well-being is not just a contemporary trend but a strategic imperative for startups navigating the intricate journey of growth.

By cultivating a culture of openness, actively seeking feedback, and valuing both positive and constructive insights, startups can not only weather the challenges but also emerge as workplaces where employees truly thrive.

Remember, if you start to receive exclusively positive feedback, it just may reveal the opposite.

Sarah Lee

Sarah Lee is the founder and Chief of Staff at Swedish startup Stravito.