One of my closest friends is a teacher, who is absolutely dedicated to the job and loves seeing young people thrive and learn. The school has an excellent academic reputation and a very strong sense of community. However, poor communication and insensitive people management over the past couple of years have meant that trust in the senior team and morale in the staffroom have plummeted and good, experienced teachers have left in their droves and taken jobs in other schools. Apart from a few stalwarts, most of the people who have made the school what it is will soon have left. Rebuilding the depth and strength of the previous team, if it can be achieved, will be costly – and take many years.
Molehills become mountains
This story is not unique. Organisations could save themselves lots of money and time, if they started really tuning in to how their employees feel. Most people don’t decide overnight to jump ship. They come to work intending to be positive and committed but over time, unattended small niggles become big ones and things start to change – first attitudes, then behaviours.
Engagement and motivation, along with much of our decision-making, are driven by emotions, not rational thought. For example: do my personal values gel with the values of the organisation I work for? Do I trust my manager? Am I treated with respect? Do I feel listened to? Do we really care about quality and excellence, or are we just paying lip service?
So how do we measure engagement? If you’re using a survey, either on-line or paper-based, design is key, both in terms of what we ask and how we ask it.
Words and pictures – not numbers
It sounds obvious, but if you want people to respond on an emotional level, you need to ask questions that allow people to express their feelings. Numerical scales encourage rational thought, verbal scales are more effective at eliciting emotions. Emotive language can be very personal, so it’s probably better not to try to find words for every point on the scale. Instead, a ‘sliding bar’ scale, with a strongly positive description at one end and a strongly negative one at the other, will suffice. You can also colour code from red to green, to provide visual support for the words.
If you made a mistake, how safe would you feel in telling your manager?
Keep it clean!
Questions should be open and unbiased, to allow respondents the freedom to respond as they wish. Those starting with ‘how’ or ‘what’ rather than ‘why’ are a good bet. ‘Yes-No’ questions should only be used to check facts. Avoid using ‘ideal situation’ statements (for example, ‘This organisation is a great place to work’) followed by a scale from ‘strongly agree’ to ‘strongly disagree’. This kind of question could skew results towards the positive– you’re effectively telling people what you would like them to say and then asking them to agree with you (or be difficult and dare to disagree). They can also be viewed with cynicism by those who are already disaffected.
Cover all the bases
Make sure you give people scope to tell you about the things that affect them. Management, environment, tools and training are important areas to explore, along with culture, communication and team relationships. Rated questions are helpful for comparison and tracking purposes, but also provide ‘free comment’ space for people to expand on their answers and to mention anything else that is important to them. This can also give you clues on what to ask about next time.
Make it safe
Perversely, those who need the information the most have the most trouble getting it. Where levels of trust are low, particularly with the local manager, employees may not give honest feedback (or any at all!), either for fear of being identified and victimised, or because they don’t believe it will make any difference. Using an outside, independent agency and allowing people the option to remain anonymous can help with this, along with up-front, face-to-face meetings to address concerns and provide reassurance. Alternatively, focus groups, again run by an outside facilitator, to talk about issues with a real person and the support of peers, can provide a useful alternative and/or additional insights.
Repeating, adjusting and learning
A well-designed engagement survey, run regularly, can give you great insights into what’s going well, and advance warning when things start to go awry. Tracking trends and variances over time can give you a chance to step in before a blip becomes a long-term problem. Equally, you can identify areas of peak performance, where employees are consistently motivated and engaged, and ask the managers of these teams to mentor those who struggle to lead and inspire their people. Don’t be afraid to change or add questions if topics come up that you didn’t think of in the first place. It’s easy to get too hung up on having comparable results – but getting intelligence about what’s important to your people is of equal value. You might even ask other (non-competitive) local employers if they’re prepared to use the same approach and share results and insights.
Be careful what you wish for…surveys are a two-way street
It’s probably not a good idea to ask the questions if you aren’t prepared to do anything with the answers. A senior manager once invited all his direct reports to give him feedback as part of a trial of a 360% appraisal system. He promised he would share the outputs with his team, so people told him about all the things they would like him to change, as well as those they were happy with. Unfortunately, he was only looking for feedback that supported his own view that he was a brilliant manager – so chose not to share the results with his team after all. If your employees are honest enough to tell you that there are things they find worrying or demotivating, you have a great opportunity to address these before they become show-stoppers. It shows strength, not weakness, to admit that you’re not perfect – and it sets a great example to others if you respond positively to feedback.
Nickie is co-founder and Director of Definity (www.definity-uk.com), a respected and inspirational customer experience consultancy that focuses on the human element in every type of interaction. Definity provides a range of tailored services, including customer interaction analysis, employee engagement analysis, management coaching and support, quality measurement and training design and delivery.
After an initial career as an operational and senior manager in the travel industry, Nickie has worked since 1997 as a specialist consultant, assisting leading organisations in the UK, Europe, South Africa, the USA and Australia in analysing, designing and improving interactions between an organisation, its employees and its customers. Nickie is an experienced conference speaker and is a professionally qualified manager, trainer, performance and life coach and NLP Practitioner.