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‘How did they manage to do that?’

January 12, 2016

At the start of this New Year we’re looking back at some interesting and useful lessons from our clients’ experiences in 2015. In this blog we’re reflecting on how and why some organisations manage to make big strides within a year of receiving feedback in their first engagement survey. I want to talk about two stand out organisations, one which began from a very low base, yet made truly exceptional improvements. The other was a business that managed to exceed even the already high standards they had achieved only a year earlier.

CEO and company leaders take personal control of engagement programme

At the top of our 2015 ‘How did they do that?’ list is the company that, only a year earlier, had produced some of the lowest scores engagement survey we’d ever seen. For example only 39% of employees had felt they had the support they needed to give good customer service, fewer than 25% felt their SMT tried to keep in touch with employees and two thirds had no confidence in the Directors of the Company. The list of depressing scores seemed almost endless. Yet a year later, a fresh set of results revealed that more than sixty of the eighty previous item scores had increased: of these, several were up by up by well over twenty points.

What lay behind these changes?

On receiving the first survey report the SMT had grasped immediately that although there was a need to tackle basic hygiene factors like working conditions and pay (which would inevitably take time to address), the key to employees’ and managers’ hearts and minds lay in engaging them making the changes that were so badly needed. This lesson was clear from the fact that the biggest single improvement was in response to the question ‘senior management actively encourage employees to contribute their ideas and suggestions for improving company performance’. Here the score was up an astonishing 29 points. This was followed by two other 20+ point increases for optimism about the Company’s willingness to respond to the Survey and the communication of the Directors’ vision for the future of the Company.

How had they done it?

Having reviewed the data, the CEO moved quickly to establish a management forum and he organised a feedback session with all company middle and senior managers. The Survey findings were presented openly and directly and each manager was asked to share both the Company results and the results for their own teams – and crucially – ask them to come up with their own plans for dealing with their own issues and concerns. It was a major task, and it took up valuable operational time, but it demonstrated in a highly public and therefore powerful way that engaging employees from the ground up was not going to be an optional activity. In addition to team level action, the CEO took personal responsibility for dealing with the corporate issues highlighted in the Survey Report. Within a few weeks, detailed reviews of pay and benefits comparability were completed. Plans were implemented for radical improvements to working conditions, training and career development. Support for customer facing employees was strengthened. At the same time a series of roadshows was arranged for the CEO and SMT to communicate the company’s long term vision and values. The main lesson? Leadership holds the key. Focus on the priorities and enjoy widespread benefits.

Improving on high levels of employee engagement

A nice problem to have, perhaps, but improving on already high levels of employee engagement is not easy. If you’re already at or near the top of your game, how do you get even better? For this reason, our second example of a company raising engagement levels is in some ways even more surprising than the first: it emerged in the form of a business which had achieved excellent results in its first ever engagement survey during early 2014. Hence their main goal was simply to maintain the high standards set. In fact, although employees were clearly positive about the business and enthusiastic about their working lives in it, opportunities for improvement still remained:

  • communication of the longer term version
  • people management at front line and mid-levels

These two issues received considerable attention via a new intranet, a system of regular team meetings, bi weekly updates and a focus on regular 1-1s. Team leaders and managers were all given opportunities to develop their people skills. As a consequence, it was therefore not too surprising that there were marked increases in the results linked with these two topics. In fact a few related item scores were up by over 20 percentage points. But what was unexpected was the halo effect on other scores of all the post survey activity. Despite the obvious difficulties involved in raising already high scores, over 80% of the items in the 2015 survey increased, and almost the same number achieved higher than norm results.

How and why did this happen?

Employees acknowledged the efforts being made and the sense of feeling valued even more than before resulted in a generally more positive climate within the business. Although in many areas the changes were not, in themselves, especially marked, the effect of the efforts to enhance the workplace created a more positive climate in which people engaged more actively.In other words, serious, albeit limited, efforts to build engagement can have a widespread positive impact. A word of warning, however: this effect can work in the opposite direction. Individual, possibly small negative incidents can also have similarly widespread knock-on consequences. Partial, superficial attempts will have limited and sometimes even negative effects.

So what can we learn from these two cases?

Crucially, as we have seen, what makes the difference is the authenticity of leaders’ and senior managers’ commitment to act. Whether on an organisation-wide or a more limited basis, employees will respond when they believe that remedial action is motivated by a genuine desire to engage.

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