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When Organizations Act, Engagement Improves

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Lavigna
May 7, 2018

My organization recently completed the second employee engagement survey for one of our clients — a local governmentagency in the U.S. We did the initial survey in 2017 and a follow-up survey this year. When we compared the results between the two surveys, we saw interesting, and not unexpected, results. That is, the departments which took action on the initial survey results saw an uptick in engagement the second time around. The units that didn’t take action didn’t improve.

You may be thinking, so what? Of course, that was the result – that’s why I said the results were expected. However, there is a bit more to the story.

In some of the departments that did not act, engagement scores actually decreased. In other words, employees were sending a message to leadership – we completed your survey in good faith, but you didn’t do anything with the results. As a result, we’ve become less engaged.

In other words, as I caution when I speak about engagement: if you survey employees and then fail to act, you will probably be worse off than if you had not surveyed. That’s what happened in the units in this agency that didn’t act on the results.

Another interesting aspect is that this agency’s HR director told me he could predict, almost immediately after the initial survey, which departments would take action, and which ones wouldn’t. How did he know? Based on how these units’ leaders reacted to their results and how they behaved during action-planning discussions. Some departments embraced the results and immediately got busy figuring out how to respond to the issues their employees raised. Other departments balked, often questioning the survey results and the methodology underlying them.

For example, one department director pushed back on the survey results showing that her employees wanted more training and development opportunities. She responded that her department already provides a wide range of opportunities. Unfortunately, her employees disagreed.

While almost all the leaders we work with are committed to (and even enthusiastic about) taking action on engagement survey results, some resist. For instance, in another organization, the director questioned his department’s survey results. He said that he had already taken steps to improve employee engagement. He expected the survey results to confirm that the department was on the right track.

However, the results showed empirically his employees were motivated by different factors than what he had focused on. In other words, his tactics, while well-intentioned, were off track. He didn’t like this answer and pushed back on the survey methodology – “This can’t be right.”

Another director in a different agency was shocked that pay was not a driver of engagement for her employees. She argued that employees have left the agency to earn more elsewhere. Maybe some did, but perhaps this was a pretext. We’ve all heard the expression, “people don’t quit their jobs, they quit their bosses.” In this case, the survey results revealed that pay was not why most of her folks showed up for work every day – or why they decided to stop showing up. To the director, these results were counterintuitive.

One of my colleagues likes to describe the process some leaders go through when they receive engagement survey results as akin to the five stages of grief and loss. This may sound like a stretch and is not meant to trivialize real loss. But I think it contains at least a grain of truth. The five stages, in order:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

Again, I’m not suggesting that dealing with employee survey results is the same as losing a loved one. Far from it.

But my experience, both delivering survey results and receiving them, reveals some parallels. Especially denial, anger, bargaining and finally—we hope—acceptance and commitment to act.

As I say when we present survey results to an organization’s leaders, I’ve been on both sides of this discussion – I’ve delivered survey results and received results for my own organization, as its leader.

When I was on the receiving end, I had two reactions. I was gratified our folks felt good about many aspects of their jobs and our organization. However, I also realized our staff was telling us that we needed to make some changes, including in our (my) approach to leadership and communication.

That was a sobering, but important, epiphany.

And we took this feedback to heart, making changes that boosted engagement and performance when we re-surveyed.

I’m not sure where I read or heard the following advice, but it has stayed with me. When we ask for feedback, there are only two ways to answer. We can say “I don’t understand,” or “thank you.”

When it comes to responding to employee engagement surveys results, I think “thank you – and let’s get busy” is the right response.

Author: Bob Lavigna is director of the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, a unit of CPS HR Consulting, an independent government agency. Previously, he was assistant vice chancellor and director of human resources for the University of Wisconsin and VP-research at the Partnership for Public Service. Email: [email protected].

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