As noted in the previous post, engagement surveys are useful for two things: capturing mass information on general trends and identifying areas worthy of more conversation. Depending on the design of the survey, engagement surveys are useful for capturing how employees feel about benefits, compensation programs and the like.
Engagement surveys fall short in two areas. The first is in capturing opinions about leadership. Our recommendation is that if you use an engagement survey, delete all of the questions having to do with satisfaction with the supervisor and opinions about top leadership and use a valid, competency-based 360 instrument instead. The standard questions in an engagement survey dealing with leadership fall more into the popularity contest category. They’re more likely to create defensiveness in supervisors who do not score well and a false high for those who do. It’s better to use a valid 360 (such as those offered by The Center for Creative Leadership) tied to specific competencies that not only give leaders more accurate feedback but also show them a path to improvement.
The second area where engagement surveys miss the boat is in really capturing what’s going on in a culture. You can’t capture that by using pre-defined, standardized, one-size-fits-all questions because every organizational culture is unique. Each and every organizational culture has a unique language, a unique set of values and a unique world-view created by the complex dynamics of history, leadership and the myriad differences in the people who work there.
This failure is most clearly demonstrated in those “great-place-to-work” surveys. There are always several companies who make the list that everyone knows are massively dysfunctional organizations operating behind a veneer of excellent compensation, benefits and work-life programs that are over-emphasized in such surveys. Beneath the programs and the cheery internal marketing you will often find people who feel entitled rather than engaged, protective of position and perks and who can hide their astonishing lack of real productivity in the nooks and crannies of what is usually a bloated organization. The primary interest of the employee is to keep what they have rather than produce what they could, a strategy they’ve adopted because well, if you can’t find real fulfillment on the job, you might as well get what you can while you’re there.
The only way you can approach the truth about a culture is to reverse the process used in engagement surveys. Instead of defining questions and categories in advance, you use one single question to spark a conversation:
“Tell me what it’s like to work here.”
This is the essence of what we call a Culture Study. Instead of imposing a consultant’s world-view on the people of the organization, you focus on learning how they perceive the world, in their own language. That single question begins a conversation, and in the natural course of the conversation, the consultant will ask clarifying questions, paraphrase what the employee said and use simple active listening to try to fully understand how this individual experiences the workplace. The process of a Culture Study removes the fundamental bias of human communication: “You mean what I think you mean.”
The consultant therefore becomes a cultural anthropologist rather than a high-level file clerk. The work of a Culture Study comes after the conversations, where the consultant pores through the texts of many conversations to identify the real cultural norms, the pain points and the many truths that are often left unsaid. This produces a summary that is shared with everyone in the organization, an act that has a immediate and positive effect on the culture: conversation topics that were previously taboo are now problems an organization can face and solve. The whispered conversations in hallways and behind closed doors are no longer necessary; the fear attached to saying the unsayable has been abolished. The real issues can now be addressed instead of buried under the usual b. s.
Needless to say, a Culture Study involves several implementation challenges. The first and most critical is that top leadership has to fully commit to the process: they have to allow the truth to come out. This requirement usually disqualifies most organizations, as top leadership is too often filled with self-protective people more interested in advancing their careers than advancing the organization. The leaders have to commit to not using their power to stop the process—something that is very difficult for those people who enjoy leadership because of its power to control rather than its power to inspire. There have been times when we have had to stop the Culture Study process before it begins because we sense in leadership an unstated unwillingness to tell and face the truth.
The second challenge involves participation in the interviews. For smaller organizations (250 and under), this is easy: everyone participates. When an organization moves beyond that size, you have to identify a sample—and the worst thing you can do is allow leadership to define that sample, which would bias your results before you start. The proper way to go about it is to generate a random sample of people in the organization, eliminating all bias relating to position, gender, race and other demographics. From a cultural standpoint, everyone in an organization participates in the culture, so if you want a real look at what’s going on, you need a truly representative sample that is not contaminated by favoritism.
Combining a Culture Study with an engagement survey can give you both the mass data you need to manage programs and the unfiltered honesty of the people who make up your culture. Properly facilitated, the process can uncover hidden problems that may be significant obstacles to organizational progress. However, a Culture Study is not for the faint of heart: it will uncover things that many organizations would rather sweep under the rug. On the upside, a Culture Study clearly communicates that every individual matters and that they have the responsibility to participate in the improvement of the organization. That’s real engagement.
In our third installment, we’ll talk about what individual leaders can do to ensure engagement within their sphere of influence.