How do we create the most important context for working with the results of an employee satisfaction survey within a company? And how do we give it the proper focus before and after submitting the results to our superiors? Many companies today conduct employee satisfaction surveys and actively work with the results on all levels within the organization. And yet not everyone gets the most out of them. We can change this, though, simply be shifting our focus.
Focusing on problems
For more than ten years, I've worked with employee surveys for both small and large international/Scandinavian organizations. I have found that most organizations are very good at defining where, when and what they want to achieve with their employee surveys. They are very good at laying down the framework for how the process should be conducted within their company. And they generally have a comprehensive communication plan with clear descriptions of procedures, distribution of responsibilities, requirements and inspiration for preparing action plans, incorporating KPIs, etc.
The framework and procedures are, therefore, often in place, and yet I still meet many companies that have trouble bringing their employee satisfaction surveys to life within the organization. Many managers work hard to transform the results into specific actions by creating good action plans that are meaningful and driven by the results.
When it comes to working with the results, it is my experience that many managers take the lowest scores as their point of departure and seek to draw up good action plans focusing on ways to solve the "problems". Even when the managers do very well, the focus is often on the areas that could have been better. This approach not only creates a context where the assumption is that we in the department/organization have a "problem", but even worse that the department/organization in itself is a "problem" that needs to be solved. This kind of thinking has a way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the 1950s, the American psychologist Robert Rosenthal conducted experimental research in how teachers' attitudes towards the schoolchildren they taught affected the results the children achieved. The same teacher was assigned two randomly selected classes from the same school in the same grade. One class was described to the teacher as consisting of talented, smart and creative children, which the teacher could expect great things from, while the other class was described as the opposite. In reality, there was no significant difference between the two classes since the children were allocated randomly. However, the two classes learned very differently and achieved very different results. The class that was initially described in positive terms learned significantly more and progressed faster than the class that had been given negative characteristics from the outset. Rosenthal demonstrated that attitude, trust and positive expectations have a considerable effect on learning and development processes.
So what if managers/organizations took an entirely different focus when following up on the results of their employee survey? Instead of focusing on the "problems", what if they focused on the strengths? Would that make it better and easier for the managers to transform the results into specific actions? People rarely ask what has been done well and how more can be achieved with what already works. In the late 1980s, this approach to "action research" was introduced by researchers Cooperrider & Srivastva. They called the method Appreciative Inquiry (AI), and it differs from traditional "action research" by focusing on what has created value so far for both the employees and the company, and using that as the foundation for a potential future. It deliberately introduces a different language with a more positive and life-oriented context. The approach is based on asking about success stories rather than talking about the problems that everyone already knows exist and that have contributed to the company's current situation.
This method of working with employee survey results is not new. Especially not for HR and other people who work with and are interested in management theory. But we still need to do a better job preparing the managers who have to work with the results. And we need to make sure to support them so that AI becomes a natural part of working with the results of an employee satisfaction survey.
When working with the results of employee surveys in this way, the context will automatically be aimed at uncovering and recognizing values and desires. The starting point will therefore be one of appreciating the best of what is already there! Employees will share knowledge and inspire each other in an entirely new way by spreading the message about all the good initiatives that are considered successes and that work well within the organization. They will be better able to share action plans and tell stories about what has enabled the department/organization to achieve better results than in the past.
So which approach will you choose the next time you're handed the results of an employee satisfaction survey?
Want to learn more about Appreciative Inquiry? Check out this video featuring the father of the theory.