It was a dark day at the retail giant's corporate headquarters. I walked into my client's office and sensed despair. "The employee survey results are in," she said glumly. "Engagement is really low we're below the benchmark on almost every key measure. Now what do we do? It's my job to fix this!"
Employee engagement or commitment is obviously critical. I don't need to cite the countless studies linking employee engagement with outcomes such as productivity and retention. Common sense makes the case for desiring strong engagement equally clear. Obviously, if employees are not finding meaning in their work, do not understand how what they are doing contributes to the organization's goals and are considering leaving the company, something needs to change.
In 25 years of consulting for Fortune 500 organizations, I have never encountered a successful organization with miserable employees. Simply put, committed and motivated employees translate to committed and motivated customers.
While surveys are very effective at flagging low morale, they are notoriously poor at identifying solutions for improvement. Having encountered this situation with my retail giant clients as well as others feeling overwhelmed by poor survey findings with no clear ideas about how to make improvements, I have developed the Seven Steps to Ignite Employee Engagement:
Engagement Step One: Get input from your people. They know what's contributing to the low engagement and have good ideas about how to fix it. They just need to be asked in the right way. I'm not talking about having your communications or human resources professionals run employee focus groups. For interviews with employees about a sensitive subject such as engagement, you need an outside consultant that employees feel they can trust to preserve their confidentiality. After all, how honest would you be about your intent-to-stay at your organization if you knew the interviewer represented the company?
You need a skilled interviewer who knows how to help employees speak openly while obtaining the input you need to move the business forward. In fact, our clients find that the benefits of the interviews begin as soon as discussions are being scheduled. Again and again we hear, "I'm impressed that they've hired you to talk with us. That tells me they do care." Of course, the interviews alone won't suffice. It's critical to acknowledge and follow up on identified issues. Failure to do so could lower morale even further.
Engagement Step Two: Address the cause don't blame. As you seek to understand why employees are feeling so negative, you may learn about people and actions that make you angry and upset. Resist the temptation to confront individuals about specific events. That kind of confrontation will lead to a backlash of blame that will only make employees reticent about speaking up in the future. Instead, focus on what about your culture or system is spawning negative behavior. Address the cause to enable improvement.
Engagement Step Three: Don't get hung up on survey benchmarks. Your company is unique with its own culture, strategy and goals. If your employee survey results indicate a pattern of low satisfaction levels, you know there is a need for improvement. Being five percent lower than the benchmark or seven percent higher doesn't change that. If 60% of your employees indicate that they intend to stay with your company and the benchmark is 52%, should you breath easily? If you do, you may miss an opportunity to reach an even higher level of engagement.
I can say this as a consultant who seriously considered creating a database about ten years ago so that I could compare client results with a benchmark. I realized, however, that this approach would eliminate my ability to focus on the uniqueness of my clients and force us to ask a series of generic questions that could be compared to the benchmark. More important than any benchmark comparisons are considerations of recent events within your company and industry. Have you just laid off 10% of your workforce? Is your industry facing a tremendous increase in global competition? If so, it would be unrealistic to expect employee attitudes to have improved during the past year and it's not particularly helpful to compare your company to other organizations and industries in vastly different situations.
Engagement Step Four: Be honest about the findings with employees. One leader of an organization struggling with low engagement announced to his employees after hearing about findings from our interviews, "I'm ashamed. How did we get here?" When I heard him, I knew he was going to triumph over the situation and get things back on track. He was willing to deal honestly with the issues and with his own employees to make improvements.
When communicating survey and interview findings, be straightforward. Resist the urge to package employees' input under a catchy theme, e.g. "The ABC's of Engagement." Every time I interview employees on sensitive subjects such as engagement, I get feedback that employees are talking to each other during the process and that they want to hear what comes out of the interviews. One employee told me, "I'm going to tell you what's really going on here because you've spoken with several of my friends. They said you're all right."
Employees know what they told the interviewer and if important issues are omitted from what is shared with them or packaged in a cutesy way, they will know it and distrust the organization. Obviously, this will not help improve engagement. It's important to candidly report the key issues that emerge in research and then announce an action plan to make improvements.
Engagement Step Five: Implement interventions. After the survey findings are in, and employees are interviewed to identify interventions, the hard part really begins. It's critical to make some changes. Does this sound obvious? Unfortunately, there are organizations that, upon completion of the research and identification of interventions, do not proceed with the most difficult part implementing change. Some companies make plans to re-survey their employees one year after the original survey to gauge improvement, even though they have done nothing differently since the original survey. That is a recipe for disaster! If a company has identified engagement issues after a baseline survey and does nothing about them, I can guarantee conditions will be worse one year later.
While sharing the survey findings with employees is an important step in the process, it is not enough on its own. It is absolutely critical to commit to making changes and then to proceed with implementation before any follow-up research is conducted.
Engagement Step Six: Involve senior leadership in the research and intervention process. Engagement is a serious business. This is one of those subjects that employees need to hear about from leadership. Leaders need to encourage employees to participate in the research. Leaders need to communicate research findings. And leaders need to wholeheartedly endorse and participate in interventions.
In fact, leadership is most likely going to need to make and model new behaviors in order for change to cascade down through the organization. For example, we worked with one organization whose goal was to significantly increase innovation; however, employees felt their company's culture inhibited sharing ideas. For this culture to change, it was critical to work individually with members of leadership to provide them with input about behaving in ways that conveyed trust and openness to their teams.
Engagement Step Seven: After interventions have been implemented, conduct follow-up research to gauge progress. Give yourself a year to 18 months for change to be effective, and then re-survey employees and conduct interviews for further depth. Some clients are impatient with waiting this long, but we encourage giving the organization time to really make some improvements.
However, this guideline doesn't mean that employee feedback comes to a standstill until the next research phase. This is where conducting your own internal conversations becomes extremely valuable. Encourage leaders and managers to ask employees for input. Have leaders meet with groups of 50-60 employees at a time for updates and frank discussions. Ask managers to check in with their direct reports to learn how things are going. Overall, set a tone of ongoing dialogue to get feedback and make adjustments to keep the engagement process on track.
The news that employee engagement is low is always difficult to hear, but it is most definitely not a terminal diagnosis. Involving leadership and employees at every level in improving the organization is a revitalizing experience with a powerful return.
Jenny Schade is president of JRS Consulting, Inc., a firm that helps organizations build leading brands and efficiently attract and motivate employees and customers. Subscribe to the free JRS newsletter on www.jrsconsulting.net.
© JRS Consulting, Inc. 2008