I am grateful that CEOs, owners, and others contact me to discuss their employee engagement results. Due to many impacts that could not be anticipated, most organizations have experienced a decline in these results. They had expected a dip in engagement; however, the dip has been worse than expected.
Most of us, when we receive data that we do not like, may respond in a variety of ways. We will discuss some predictable reactions later. My advice is to pause before reacting and take time to put things in perspective. The good news is that there is data to work with. Employees were asked their perception in several areas; the more feedback an organization gets, the better.
At times employees will focus more on what could be improved versus what is already good. It is normal in most workplaces for people to notice what they don’t like more than what is good. It is human nature to talk about traffic being bad, long lines at the grocery store, etc. Generally we don’t talk about what a wonderful day we had due to smooth traffic or short lines.
I like to ask employees to remember that they work in an organization that is asking their opinion; many organizations do not. It is the norm for the top leaders to say, “People are our most important asset.” My experience is that important assets are measured. I admire organizations that take the time to invest in measuring employee perceptions in many aspects of operations.
Even with all the good reasons to embrace this data, it is not always easy at first. It can be painful to read some of the results, especially after these last few years. Many national headlines are reporting trust in senior executives has decreased since the beginning of the pandemic. In fact, many key engagement indicators have fallen since then. Besides trust in top leaders, results have fallen in the areas of organizational support, resources needed to do the job, and recognition. When one looks at the impact of the pandemic, these results are not surprising. COVID-19 reduced in-person face-to-face interactions, supply chain issues impacted resources to do the job, talent shortages made staffing exceedingly difficult, and all of the above impacted recognition opportunities.
However, the way employee engagement data is acted upon is an important indicator of an organization’s culture. We will cover what not to do, followed by what to do. First, be aware that even the most disappointing data is a gift: It provides a road map on how to “bounce up” in employee engagement.
The current reaction to less-than-expected employee engagement is similar to what happened years ago when organizations started measuring customer satisfaction more often. In fact, I dusted off a past PowerPoint I used back then in workshops. It showed how organizations chose to respond to data that is not as positive as they had hoped.
First, let us start with the not-so-effective way to act. Do not:
- Hide the data.Yes, some organizations decide to just deep-six the results.
- Change measurement vendors. In other words, just blame the vendor for the news you didn’t want to hear.
- Tally up the reasons why the data is not correct. Excuses might be statements like:
- “Only unhappy people fill out the survey.”
- “It wasn’t a good time to give the survey.” (“We were busy that day!”)
- “We have a younger workforce now, and they are more unhappy in general.”
It’s not that some of the items are not influencers; however, they usually are not overwhelming drivers in engagement results.
- Conclude that the response rate is low, and therefore it is inaccurate.
On the other hand, the organizations that tend to show marked improvement in engagement do the following:
- Accept the data. Avoid rationalizing or making excuses.
- Take time to dig into the details to learn. What areas did better than others? What can we learn from them?
- Play offense. I have seen CEOs with disappointing data quickly build trust by sharing the data, accepting the results, asking for input, laying out actions that will be taken, taking the actions, and communicating the progress.
- Consider providing reasons for the decline in employee engagement. This is okay. Just be cognizant about not appearing defensive. Then explain what you are going to do about it.
For example, “We recognize that, due to many factors, there are more newer people in the organization. Having more new people impacts productivity as it takes time to learn the processes, tools, and coworkers. Also, the pandemic reduced normal opportunities for development. This impacted the perception of organizational support. We completely understand. Due to playing catch-up, here is the investment being made in skill-building.”
Another example: “Recognition no doubt decreased these past three years. We had to cancel the normal events to recognize performance, milestones in service, and general celebrations. Here are the actions that are being taken to do a much better job of recognition as we move forward.”
- Be authentic. It is okay to say you wish you had done something sooner or better. People are more interested in what is taking place now and in the future than in reliving the past. It is okay to say, “We cannot change what happened. Let us learn from it and take the right steps.” People respond favorably when it is apparent their feedback is being recognized and valued.
Remember, no matter where one works, they have made the choice to work there. The reasons why can be missed. Take time to let people share why they are working where they work. You will hear many positive comments. These set the foundation for healthy dialogue about what is working well, and reveal the best ways to work together on improvement opportunities.
These past three years have caused so many challenges. The decline in employee engagement is only one of them. The key is how each organization moves forward. Those that dig deep to understand the data, recognize and learn from their bright spots, and take quick action to fix identified issues will be the winners.