How to Breathe Life into Employee Engagement Surveys, Part 2


Once your organization has gathered the feedback from the employee engagement survey, it’s time to focus on the critical components that ultimately determine the success or failure of the process: analyzing the survey results and following up with action plans. Together skillful analysis and targeted actions is what breathes life into the survey process.

Analyzing Engagement Survey Data

Simply stated, the goal of analyzing the survey data is to use the information to discover trends, truths and insights that are revealed through the employee feedback. In other words, the numbers will tell a story and it is the role of those involved in analyzing the results to find the story behind the numbers. A skilled interpreter will use their intuition and curiosity as well as sharp analytical skills to uncover the truth in the data and hidden opportunities. Here are a few tips that will help get you started.

1.         Whether you’re looking at total organizational results or the results of a specific group or department, you want to look at the data on three levels: the overall results, the broad categories (benefits, satisfaction with supervisor) and each individual question.

2.         If you have multiple department-level reports, it is helpful to compare and contrast them.

3.         Don’t rush the analysis. Allow yourself time to ruminate on the information.  Go back to the original goals of the survey and see how you fared. Look at the data from the perspective of your personal experience of the organization for results that don’t fit that perspective. If something doesn’t make sense look for the pattern that brings it into focus even if it means looking through a different lens.

The challenges of analysis can be demonstrated through an experience I had while working as the HR leader for a global, geographically-dispersed business team. During our first year we had great results—or so we thought at first. The engagement scores had improved from the previous year and were generally higher than the overall organization, and in most cases higher than the external benchmarks. The reports also indicated that most of the functional areas and the business leaders had above-average overall engagement scores. However, when I looked at the results from a geographical perspective, there were wide swings in satisfaction. I then conducted an analysis of my business team based on physical location rather than reporting structure. Boy, did the picture change! Once I turned the data around it became clear that employees felt less and less satisfied in the quality and quantity of communication they received and the resources available to them the further they worked from the corporate office. People in the US who were located in smaller or home offices away from corporate had lower engagement responses. The folks in Europe and APAC also had lower scores that followed the same declining trend when their physical location moved further from a “central office.” The light bulb went on: if we were going to create an effective global business we had to improve our communication and processes for employees who worked outside of the corporate office. This insight turned out to be low hanging fruit and we were able to implement meaningful action to address the issues in less than one year. We just had to uncover the need.

Action-Planning and Follow-up

Ultimately, the success and employee trust in the engagement survey process will be evaluated by the actions taken by top leadership. Note that I did not say by the “action plans, “ because the plans are useless if they are not translated into sustainable, meaningful actions. The golden rule for action planning is: “You must have an unwavering commitment from the top leadership down to meet your commitments.” Some experts are using the term impact planning instead of action planning, a change we wholeheartedly embrace.  We believe this slight change of reference puts the focus on the fact that the actions must translate into meaningful results.

The importance of the follow-up cannot be stated strongly enough, as shown in a Gallup study on employee engagement surveys. In the study they measured responses to the statement, “Action Plans from my last survey have had a positive impact on my workplace.” Companies who had a score in the top quartile reported an overall increase in engagement of 10% over the previous year. Conversely, companies who scored in the lowest quartile had a 3% decrease in overall engagement and no doubt experienced negative knock-on effects.

In addition to the “golden rule” here are a few tips on how to turn action planning into impact planning.

1.         Keep it simple, focused and committed. Identify the top 3-5 items to which the organization will commit and execute on them, flawlessly. Don’t commit to making a long list of changes. Evaluate what the organization can do and is willing to do.

2.         Get clarification on any feedback you don’t understand. For example, if the organization scored poorly in the area of communication, ensure that you understand exactly where people perceive the communication gaps and focus your action on closing those gaps.

3.         Designate an owner for each action item. Ensure the person has sufficient authority and resources to handle the task to ensure full accountability.  It may also be beneficial to create an employee team to work on the task. Consider adding performance and participation on the team to the goals for all team members.

4.         Once you have communicated the action plans, be sure to track the progress made and provide timely and periodic updates to the larger organization. Celebrate milestones whenever possible.

5.         Ensure that the actions you take link to business priorities and are stated as measurable goals. Remember: the goal of an engagement survey is not just to get better score next time! The actions you take should have clear objective, metrics to measure success and tie to the organization’s business in a meaningful way.


How to Breathe Life into Employee Engagement Surveys, Part 1

Customer Service-Smile-Headset

I must confess that when employee engagement surveys started to become popular, I was skeptical about their value. I chalked them up as another passing fad that created lots of sizzle, but little substance.

As luck would have it, I joined an organization just as they were launching their annual survey process and I had the responsibility to lead the process for my business units. Since I was new to the company and this would be one of my debut projects, I had to replace my skepticism with a determination to ensure that the survey process contributed high value and high impact for my client leaders and their teams.

It worked! I am now convinced that employee engagement surveys can be an excellent tool to gather relevant data about how employees feel about their organizations. ­­But the potency of the process is not in gathering the information or even understanding the results—the heart of the process is translating the information into meaningful action. Employee engagement surveys will only make a difference for your organization if you support them with realistic action plans to which leaders are held accountable.

The use of the employee engagement survey is a fairly common practice for many organizations. This is no surprise, since the link between employee engagement and company performance is well established. According to Gallup, companies with highly engaged employees have 3.9 times the earnings per share (EPS) growth rate compared to those with low engagement scores. Yet there is no common agreement on many aspects of the process, what to measure or even the definition of engagement. However, there are some guiding principles that will greatly enhance the effectiveness and value of using engagement surveys.

Guiding Principles

Confidentiality and Anonymity: People must be able to complete the surveys anonymously without exception. Use a third party to distribute and collect the surveys and to compile the data. Remember the power of engagement surveys is to obtain candid, unfiltered feedback, which is easier to gather when employees aren’t concerned about being identified.

Leadership Commitment: Be absolutely certain that the leaders from the top executive down support the survey process.  This means that:

  • You must clarify how the leaders define engagement and what they want to measure. Identify any issues on which they do not want to solicit feedback. A general rule of thumb is never ask a question when you don’t intend to address the issue.
  • Leadership must be open to “listening” to the feedback, be willing to communicate the results (both positive and negative) and translate those results into action. There may be situations when the organization does not choose to act upon specific feedback, but the reasons for those decisions should be honestly communicated.

Timing: There are three primary considerations when it comes to timing:

  • First, talk to your business leaders to evaluate the “rhythm of the business. “ Are there segments of time when a significant number of people will be out of the office, when key product launch deadlines or tradeshows are looming, or other events that will impact participation? Schedule a time that is best suited to your business cycle.
  • Second, look at the HR calendar. No one wants to be inundated by HR initiatives, and you don’t want to overload your team. Avoid scheduling the engagement survey on the heels of other significant HR work.
  • Don’t assume that you have to conduct a survey every year. The real value of the process comes from employees trusting that their organization is listening to and acting upon their feedback. It is far more effective to space the surveys at intervals that allow the organization time to have great follow-up, than to rush through actions to meet the next year’s survey deadline. An annual survey may work for some organizations, but eighteen to twenty-four months is the guideline I prefer.

Identify the Employee Groups: While this may seem obvious, it may require some thought. Remove contractors from the distribution (including contractors in an engagement survey may jeopardize their non-employee status). Are there specific business units or categories of employees that are too different from the overall organization and should be handled differently? Once you have identified the people to be surveyed make sure everyone receives a survey—even if it means using different delivery methods.

Designing or Selecting the Right Survey: Now that you have the basics sorted out, you are ready to make the decisions about the survey content. Whether you design the survey in-house, select a product off the shelf or hire a survey company will depend on several factors, such as the size and complexity of the organization; internal skills, resources and budget; the need for language translation; in-house availability of people trained in survey development and similar issues. One consideration that is often overlooked in the decision process is the need for benchmarking. Regardless of what survey form you use, you will want to include a number of core questions that you will use in subsequent surveys. These core questions will become your internal benchmarks to monitor long-term trends.

Some organizations may also place a premium on external benchmarking in key areas. If this is the case, you will be best served to hire a vendor who specializes in employee engagement surveys. They will be able to provide core questions and results from other organizations that you can use for external benchmarking. If you are interested in external benchmarking, be sure you define the kinds of organizations against whom you want to be compared and select a vendor that can give you that data.

Next week we will take a look at finding the “hidden gems” as you review the survey results and the all-important Action Planning process.

Skip Level Meetings: Two Essential Ingredients, Part 1

Group of worrkers

A few weeks ago I received a call from a colleague who wanted to discuss the pros and cons of Skip Level Meetings. Her company’s new CTO had approached HR for assistance in planning a series of Skip Level Meetings to get to know his new team. The leader had informed his direct reports of his plan and he reported to my friend that everyone thought it was a great idea. However, shortly after meeting with the CTO, my friend noted that one by one each of his direct reports dropped by HR and it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to their concerns about the “Skip Levels” their new boss wanted to conduct with their teams. To the credit of my HR colleague she immediately recognized that there was a significant disconnection between the new leader and his direct team and that the idea of implementing the Skip Level Meetings needed some further evaluation before plunging ahead.

So, my friend wanted to take a step back and talk through some of the fundamentals involved with Skip Level Meetings. After helping her assess the objectives of the new leader and the readiness of the team, I thought it would be a good idea to share some best practices on the HROD Blog.

What is a Skip Level Meeting? In simplest terms a Skip Level Meeting is held between an upper level manager and an employee or group of employees who are more than one level below them in the organization. In other words, the employee(s) are part of the senior leader’s team, but do not directly report to them. The senior leader meets with the employee(s) alone or with a neutral facilitator, but the direct (or “skipped”) manager of the team is not present. The “skipped” manager receives feedback from the meeting through a debriefing with the senior manager and participates in a joint follow-up session with the senior leader and the team.

Technically, a Skip Level Meeting can be an impromptu meeting between a senior leader and a single employee who meets the criteria described above, but for the purpose of this discussion we are talking about a more structured process.

Back to the Basics: The Two Essential Ingredients. As with any HR or OD process, the thoughtful practitioner must take care to ensure that they use the right tool for the right situation. This always requires assessment of the situation and the relevant factors that will either facilitate or sabotage success.  The two essential ingredients that need to be assessed when considering using Skip Level Meetings are as fundamental as it gets: trust and clarity. Trust relates to the confidence the people involved in the process have in each other, while clarity is about having a clear and appropriate purpose backed by a sound, well executed process.

This week we are focusing on questions that will help to assess trust from the different perspectives of the participants in the Skip Level process.  These questions are not intended to be asked and answered directly, but are areas you should tactfully probe as you assess whether or not a Skip Level Meeting is the right approach for a given situation.

Does the “skipped” manager trust that . . .

  • the real purpose of the meeting is clearly stated and that there are no hidden motives?
  • their leader is open to actively listening to the team and gathering information, even if the feedback may challenge some of the leader’s own beliefs or assumptions?
  • the meeting will be well-organized and skillfully facilitated so that the feedback they receive is unbiased, reliable, honest and timely?
  • their team will offer fair and balanced feedback to the leader?


Do the employees who are invited to participate trust that . . .

  • the senior leader conducting the meeting is fair and open to really listening to them?
  • the senior leader supports the “skipped” manager and is not trying to undermine the manager or to protect and defend him/her?
  • their feedback will be taken seriously and that there will be meaningful follow-up?
  • the facilitator will keep the meeting on track and make it a safe place to speak up?
  • the senior leader and facilitator will respect the confidentiality and anonymity of what’s said, while presenting the themes of the feedback in a credible and accurate manner?
  • their fellow team members will respect differences in opinion, the need for open dialogue and each person’s right to confidentiality?


Does the senior leader trust that . . .

  • they have sufficiently thought through and conveyed the purpose of the meeting to the facilitator, manager and employees?
  • the “skipped” manager is supportive of the process and will convey that support to their team?
  • the “skipped” manager is receptive to hearing honest feedback and will follow-up with appropriate actions and dialogue?
  • the employees view this as a constructive avenue for dialogue and will be open and engaged in the process?

If the answer is “yes” to all of the questions posed above, you can feel confident that the team has a good level of trust. Next week we will delve into the purpose of the Skip Level Meeting and why it is essential to clarify the purpose before getting started.

Photo Credit: © Pilarin | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

Turning Around the Unwilling, Part 3

Our previous post dealt with various ways you can lessen the impersonal nature of an engagement survey and gather critical information about what’s really going on in your organization that engagement surveys often miss.

Even with our recommended enhancements to the engagement survey process, there will still be something missing. In the first post of this series, we made the argument that unless you are serious about engaging each individual employees, you are not serious about engagement. Unless every individual matters, no one matters. If you diminish one, you diminish all. To have a truly engaged organization, every individual needs to matter and everyone needs to feel that the work they do, the talents and energy they bring and the things that make them a unique human being also matter. Even when you have to fire someone, that person deserves respect and preservation of dignity.

Given the sheer size and complexity of organizations today, this seems like a daunting task. This is why selecting and training leaders who are oriented more towards lifting people up instead of dragging them down is critical to engagement.

If you hire and develop leaders who truly believe that each individual matters and that they have responsibility to every person on their team—and, most importantly, back up their beliefs in words and deeds—you will astronomically improve your odds of achieving an engaged workforce. They will engage with employees because they want to, not because they have to. They will do it because for them, it’s the natural thing to do—it falls into the “of course” category. These leaders will make time for each person on the team, because they know in their hearts that every individual makes a meaningful contribution to the team’s performance. They will help people survive the rough patches in organizational life because they care what people think and how people feel. They’ll listen, give honest feedback and provide helpful suggestions because they know that doing those simple things keeps the team strong and healthy.

So, what can you do to ensure you have great leaders in your organization? Even though we sell leadership training services, we have to be honest and tell you that training alone will not get you there. Here are the key things you must do to create a great team of leaders in your organization:

  1. Make your hiring and succession processes for leaders challenging and educational. You have to hold leadership candidates to a higher standard because their decisions have greater potential for good or harm. Identify the real competencies you need, develop specific behavioral questions and don’t let the candidate get away with a non-answer. Use multiple sources to assess candidates: assessments, simulators, tiered and cross-functional interviews. Focus heavily on decision-making, communication and collaboration skills while probing hard for compatible values. Avoid the tendency to use soft interview techniques (all too common at the executive level, of all places!) and feel free to challenge the candidate’s thinking and engage the candidate in debate. Your stance has to be, “If you want us to give you the responsibility to lead in this organization, you’re going to have to show us that you’re the best—because we want to be the best.” Don’t settle for less. When the process is over, give all the final candidates honest feedback about what they did well and what they could have done better, and don’t let any employment attorney frighten you out of that obligation. Remember, every individual matters—and that includes people who want to work for you.
  2. Provide forums for discussion, debate and education. Organize monthly sessions for leaders to talk about leadership and its challenges. Select participants for each session at random so that you mix leaders across functions and levels to expand their perspectives and forge bonds between leaders across the organization. With advances in video conferencing technology, even global organizations can hold these forums regularly. On the education side, use a competency-based blended learning approach and combine assignmentology, online courses, professional memberships, knowledge sharing portals and classroom training to keep leaders engaged. On the classroom side, leaders should have at least one classroom course per year, because face-to-face communication is still the most powerful and effective form of communication . . . and leaders need to be especially competent in interpersonal skills.
  3. Never compromise, but make sure you have a back-up plan. There are always strong forces in an organization that will drive you towards making sub-optimal decisions based on convenience or compromise. Don’t let this happen in your leadership selection process and don’t let this happen in your leadership correction process. Bad leaders have a toxic effect on an organization and the higher they are, the more poisonous they can be. If a leader is in trouble, act quickly to get them help or move them on. This problem can be almost entirely avoided through an effective succession planning process because knowing you have a good back-up candidate will allow you to take the time to work with the non-performing leader.

We do not have to live in organizations filled with people who don’t want to be there. With competent, honest and responsible leadership, with multiple opportunities for engagement and with a culture that lives by the belief that every single individual matters, you can avoid having an organization of the unwilling and get closer to the ultimate state: a place where people gladly choose to come to work each and every day.

Photo Credit: © Bellemedia | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

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Turning Around the Unwilling, Part 2

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.

Photo Credit: © Sarasta | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

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