If you want the engagement initiatives in your organization to be successful (and off course you do) there are some important aspects to consider before, during, and after implementing an engagement survey.
Before: What’s the story?
Strategic anchoring is crucial if the engagement survey is to be understood as an important project and thereby also to be prioritized in a busy workday – by employees as well as managers. A common pitfall is the false dichotomy between business and HR, between profit and people. We know for a fact that the engagement of the employees is strongly correlated with the customer experience and satisfaction. Especially for your customer facing employees. In other words, engagement is the bridge that closes the gap between people and profit.
Before implementing an engagement survey, HR needs to ensure buy in and sincere commitment from the top management. This is something you can only get if you can help them link the employee experience to the bottom line of the business. Let’s face it, if the false dichotomy prevails, CxOs tend to focus on the business sometimes forgetting the people that ironically delivers and drive the business results.
HR therefore needs to encourage top management to take a look in the mirror and ask themselves: Why are we measuring the engagement of the employees? Is the purpose to learn about engagement in our organization? Is it to help achieve strategic KPI’s such as low employee turnover in a competitive market? Is it to control the competencies of front-line managers? Or is it merely a symbolic imitation exercise “oh, all ambitious companies seem to do it, then we should do it too”. You guessed it, the latter two are not something we recommend…
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After some honest soul searching in the C-suite the top management together with HR should compose a compelling AND authentic narrative for the rest of the organization about their intentions with the engagement survey. What are the criteria for success? Remember, employees are sensemaking human beings, so if the intention behind the survey is unclear, they will start to create their own story biased by their general attitude towards top management. Can you afford to take that chance? Get ahead of the story so you can influence (control is impossible) the narrative of the engagement survey. As HR you especially need to “employee prove” the narrative. Will it have the desired impact on the employees? Or has top management dipped their pen too much in the corporate ink?
As with any other organizational project the mid-level managers will be the everyday ambassadors and role models. Therefore, based on our experience with 1000+ projects in Ennova we know that best practice is to provide the mid-level managers with the necessary training before implementing the survey. They need to feel competent (can I do this?) in the area of employee engagement as well as motivated to work with it (what’s in it for me?). As HR you should take a good and honest look at the people skills of the managers. Do you feel confident that they can communicate in an engaging way about the survey? Do you believe they have the right competencies and motivation to facilitate fruitful dialogues about the results afterwards? Or are perhaps some former highly performing specialists now holding positions as managers despite their lack of people skills? If so, you must ensure they receive the necessary training and support along the way.
During: Encourage to engage
During the survey the mid-level managers and HR play a key role. Managers should kindly remind their subordinates of why it is important to participate. Here it is often beneficial if the manager can add a concrete and local ambition to the overall company narrative. What does that specific manager wish to achieve in his/her specific team by utilizing and discussing the data from the survey? Sincere commitment from one’s own manager is a strong predictor for high response rate which means better quality in data and therefore provides a precise foundation for the discussion about engagement in the team (Bracken, Timmreck, Fleenor & Summers, 2001).
Key employees can as well be important ambassadors for the project enhancing their sense of ownership and thereby influencing their colleagues positively.
As a manager it is also important to be visible and accessible during the time window where the engagement survey is open. This way the manager can answer any questions from the employees regarding the engagement survey. As HR you should too be visible and proactive. You can ask curiously about the employees’ or managers’ experiences of the survey and its’ content but not going to much into details risking compromising the feeling of anonymity.
After: Actions turn insights into tangible results
It is crucial that an engagement survey is followed up with engaging dialogues in the teams. The absence of this does not just mean status quo. It means a setback in terms of trust and managerial credibility (Storch, J. et al., 2010). Employees gave something of themselves and - rightfully so - expect something in return. As HR you have an important job in motivating and supporting the managers, so they do invite their teams to a facilitated dialogue about engagement based on the data from the survey. In fact, when the managers know the date interval for the survey, they should already then invite the team hence sending an unambiguous signal that they will follow up in the team, and that their team members participation is an important piece of the puzzle.
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In our experience managers sometimes struggle keeping an open mindset while reading the results. The temptation to jump to premature conclusion is simply too strong for the constantly sensemaking human brain. HR can support the managers in understanding that the results should generate more questions and curiosity than conclusion and solutions.
Therefore, it is normally helpful for both HR and managers to consider the report as a map over the terrain. But just as if you are hiking in the forest, the terrain is dynamic and ever changing by nature. Therefore, if you stick too much to the report you might slip due to wet terrain, stumble upon a small rock, or perhaps miss the beautiful landscapes around you. More concrete, you should of course study the report closely but do not make the mistake of thinking that you fully know the engagement terrain in your team before discussing the data with your team. In other words, the data should not drive your decisions but inform your decisions. Therefore, big data needs to be supplemented with “thick data” in terms of your subordinates’ perspective.
After the initial follow up process HR can keep track and follow up on managers and employees to learn, how the dialogue went and what they have decided to work on moving forward. If you measure engagement and do not take action afterwards it would be like taking a step on to the bathroom scale, noticing the number on the screen and then continuing with “business as usual” and expect to have lost weight next quarter…
In other words, the engagement survey is by itself just a “dead” thing. Only human beings can bring it to life when they work with it – together – creating data informed improvements.