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Apr 29, 2021

Long ago, before the time of quarantines and face coverings, I attended one of those things where adults get together to share drinks and conversation. I believe a party is what we used to call it. At this party, I met a new acquaintance. We exchanged small talk, and I told her that I helped leaders and teams develop at the best tech company in the world. 

When you have a job that you love, as I do, it attracts a sad glimmer in the eyes of others who work in toxic environments. Adults become so accustomed to complaining to other adults about the misery of their jobs that the opposite dialogue deflates the conversation. 

My new acquaintance, along with her sad glimmer, said, “I wish I felt like that. How does your company do it?” 

I said that my organization holds a relentless focus on people. Then I asked her what was going on with her company. She rattled off issues, lousy behavior running rampant, and overall disenfranchised employees. I questioned if the company was listening or if they sent out a survey to gather broader feedback. Her response was, “We do, but nothing comes from it. It is the day-to-day that is the issue anyway.”

Which is why organizations need to ask the question: What does engagement look like every single day? The typical approach to engagement surveys won’t uncover that. 

The Unfortunate Reality of Using Surveys to Drive Culture

I wish engagement surveys worked like vendors and other “experts” say they are supposed to work. I wish organizations used effective survey practices with absolute rigor — practices like ensuring 100% anonymity, delivered honest feedback, and developing and action plans following the results. 

I wish that struggling cultures would use the data to become more beautiful places to work. However, I think the process is thoroughly incomplete in efforts to develop strong cultures. 

Because here is the typical, inconvenient truth about the engagement-survey process:

Organizations send out a survey once a year and hype it up like crazy. Managers undergo a series of panic attacks awaiting the results. Meanwhile, employees get together and start to believe that the company will now finally figure what an asshole their boss is. Indeed, in Bob Sutton’s book, The No Asshole Rule, Sutton goes as far as to say that if we could narrow surveys down to asking people “whether their boss is an asshole, we would not need any other survey” to strengthen culture. 

(I knew a team once that met after work to fill out a survey in unison. They knew their boss would figure out who wrote specific comments and retaliate, so they decided to cut and paste the exact words collectively to call attention to the behavior safely.)

The survey results come back with different trends, and if your software is super fancy, you’ve got natural language processing (NLP) to depict emotions behind people’s words. 

Then action plans are created and deployed, along with a carefully baked message from senior leadership saying, “We read every one of the comments.” Good managers nod their heads at the lovely comments. Bad managers proceed to dismiss the negative ones. Meanwhile, senior leadership takes zero bold actions to improve the culture, which further hurts the process going forward. 

You could say, Well, some organizations are moving to more frequent pulse surveys. Some are even asking their people questions daily. 

That’s great and, again, a tremendous first step in collecting data. But do employees trust the process? Do they see real change? Do they even feel safe to enter accurate, truthful information? If the answer is not “yes” to all those questions, it doesn’t matter if you send out 1,000 surveys a day. 

Make It Every Day

Which takes us back to the original question: How can we make engagement a constant focus to create a thriving culture?

The first part of the answer starts with thinking about what we’re actually measuring. In his new book, Culture Renovation, Kevin Oakes looks at the research from companies that have been successful and unsuccessful at turning their culture into a place of thriving humans and minds. Oakes, the co-founder and CEO of the consultancy i4cp, points out that most organizations that failed to change their culture did not identify how to measure the change. He therefore suggests the following metrics to gauge culture change: attrition, inclusion (by reviewing external responses that employees post), employee referrals, talent mobility, rehires, and… engagement surveys. Together, they give better ammunition than engagement surveys alone.

Second, it would be highly impactful if an organizations’ balance sheet represented the financial impact of the listed indicators. 

For example, we know from multiple studies that the average cost of an employee leaving an organization is two times their salary when considering the loss of institutional knowledge and the subsequent cost to hire and onboard another person. The price rises exponentially if the person has tenure. 

So if there are 10 unwanted departures a month of people making $100K, the balance sheet should report a loss of $2 million. If you multiply that by 12 months, it becomes an annual loss of $24 million. 

Now take the opposite. If HR is doing work to improve culture and positively impacts retention numbers, they should report savings. We could find rationale dollar amounts to represent most of the everyday engagement indicators. Doing this would force organizations to keep a continuous focus on engagement. As the saying goes, what gets measured gets managed — and what costs money gets scrutinized (I made up that last part).

The third idea to create everyday engagement would be placing absolute priority on creating psychological safety by leaders. The focus would be to understand that a safe environment is vital to achieving higher productivity, innovative ideas, and financial health. If you are not doing this, you are failing as a leader — no other KPIs would matter.

But how do you monitor this behavior? The NeuroLeadership Institute studies brains’ reactions in specific scenarios that led to feelings of safety or danger. Of course, you don’t need to review MRIs of your people to understand what’s going on. Instead, you can understand how their brains are reacting based on a number of circumstances:

CircumstancePsychologically SafePsychologically Unsafe
StatusEmployees feel like their voice matters. Leaders and managers run the entire show. 
CertaintyEmployees feel like the company operates with transparency, with a clear understanding of where it’s headed.Leaders display sporadic and inconsistent communication.
AutonomyPeople have the space to think, create, and make mistakes.Managers dictate all decisions and micromanage peoples’ actions.
RelatednessEmployees feel a sense of group belongingness.Groups in the organization make people feel left out. 
FairnessPeople feel like decisions are made from a lens of equality and pragmatism.There is an atmosphere of favoritism and bias. 

Engagement surveys are a significant first step in developing solid cultures, but they will not lead to everyday engagement. We need engagement every day in our efforts to create more humanized work. Constant focus, conversation, and actions in the best interest of people make a thriving culture, not sporadic action plans. We do not have to wait for even a monthly calibration of data collection to address organizational issues or celebrate strengths. 

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