What Surveys Fail to Reveal About the Employee Experience 

You’d think that after decades of developing strategies, HR and talent acquisition teams would have eliminated many of the biggest barriers to finding and keeping satisfied, motivated employees and excited new hires. But here we are, facing a Great Resignation and widespread employee dissatisfaction, and it seems that these problems aren’t going anywhere. 

If it feels like it’s getting harder to retain your employees, you are right.

What’s motivating employees to leave or choose other offers are needs, fears, and concerns that often go unaddressed — until the decision to turn down an offer or take a position elsewhere has been made. The problem is that it’s increasingly difficult to understand what these needs and concerns are. What’s more, such issues don’t always surface in surveys. 

Big Picture vs. Little Realities

It’s the job of company leaders to think big. This drives growth and innovation; it keeps organizations competitive. But the gap between big goals and day-to-day functions of a company’s mission is often a big one — one that’s difficult for even the most attentive team to identify. 

At any given moment, an employee’s manager has different priorities, both “big” and “little.” In the bigger picture, they want to deliver a good employee experience, but at the same time, they’re trying to meet more granular goals: deadlines, business deliverables, or requests from their own boss. 

When push comes to shove, which it often does, those more immediate and concrete demands (“I need to meet this performance objective by next month” or “I need my employee to commit to this project”) are often going to win out against the abstract, fuzzy big goal of figuring out whether an employee feels their needs are being met.

We can’t pretend that this doesn’t have the potential to sting. People are relational; often a manager has the most potential out of anyone else in a company to affirm an employee and make them feel good about their performance. In fact, the way an employee feels about their manager is a bigger driver of job satisfaction than any other factor. When there’s a mismatch between employee needs and a manager’s demands, that employee is most likely going to feel frustrated and ignored.

The Difficulty of Having Real “Real Talk”

The “speak up and be heard” policy that organizations want wholeheartedly to encourage in their culture doesn’t play out as well as they want it to. That’s because there are power dynamics at play. An employee is faced with the impossible task of being vulnerable about their needs to the management team that controls their paycheck. It’s similar in regard to job-seeking: Potential hires presenting themselves for a new job often feel pressure to appeal to a company’s priorities before revealing their own. 

Today’s workplace system teaches individuals that they need to put their best foot forward and hide everything else to be successful — despite frequent rhetoric to the contrary. Indeed, employees are more likely to trust a stranger than to trust their manager

Even a manager who is ready and open to hear about an individual’s concerns has a deck that’s stacked against them, because that employee or potential hire is incentivized to say whatever it takes to look good at their job rather than say something “risky” about what they actually need. This shiny veneer inadvertently promoted by the workplace might help individuals present themselves well, but it also stacks the odds against a manager’s ability to understand what their employees truly need. 

We’re All Creatures of Feeling

People are not as logical as we might think. As psychologists tell us, human beings make decisions emotionally and justify them rationally. They act on feelings and emotions that are unique to who they are and what they’re looking for from an employer. 

Companies roll out supportive policies and goals that attempt to reach people on a logical level (whether by offering extended parental leave or promising to champion inclusivity), but at the end of the day, what motivates employees to stay is how they feel about a company and their position within it. 

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The feelings that dictate leave-or-stay decisions aren’t informed by a company’s initiatives or year-end goals for better culture. Instead, they’re formed through an employee’s highly subjective perceptions over time of how well a company is treating them. A manager may be doing their very best by acting from a structured, practical standpoint, but if a worker feels undervalued or snubbed, odds are they will want to leave this baggage behind and go elsewhere to find a new opportunity.

Getting Into the Weeds (on Purpose)

So how do we fix these problems? The solution itself might have something to do with being, if only for a moment, anti-solution.

Think about it: We have an excess of “fixes” for these types of problems. We have SaaS solutions and organizational restructuring. We have initiatives and goalposts. What we seem to be lacking most is a firm understanding of what the unique problems are in the first place.

One approach we can borrow is from the field of qualitative user experience (UX) research, which involves one-on-one conversations to gain nuanced, personal insights about people’s experiences with a specific product. When examined together, these interviews help us understand the complexities of issues and get to the bottom of what causes them. 

Leadership teams aren’t quite the same as tech companies conducting research on their consumers before bringing a new device to market. However, company leadership does offer a product to the people who work for them: the employee experience. 

Here are some qualitative methods that can help determine how successful this experience really is: 

  • Learn how to listen. The reason many people don’t bring up their frustrations is because they assume that no one will hear them out or be willing to help. Hold yourself accountable listening instead of filling the silence. When you show that you’re interested in what an employee has to say, you are giving them space and support for what they want to talk about. 
  • Don’t stick to the script. You probably have a long list of issues that you’re pretty sure are what’s affecting retention and successful hiring, but if those haven’t helped you solve the problem yet, the list is probably incomplete. Be prepared and open to take conversations in unexplored directions or to hear about issues that come as a complete surprise. Part of looking for a solution means being willing to find it in a place you hadn’t thought to look.
  • Acknowledge your own limitations. Working as a management team means facing barriers that aren’t your fault. Overcoming them is not easy; it involves the willingness to recognize your blind spots and or even potential biases. If finding the root cause of retention issues isn’t something that can happen between management and employees, consider bringing in an external partner. There are structural limitations that will make it difficult for you to get accurate and complete input (which are not always your fault!), and there are third-party options that can help secure information that is impactful and reliable. 

The elusive answers to keeping your employees and growing your workforce are there; it’s just going to take work to find them. Prioritizing interpersonal connection, listening tactics, and the ability to be open-minded about what’s actually going on in your company will take you far in understanding more about what today’s employees need and how you can provide it. 

Michelle McKinney is EcoX Workforce lead for Bold Insight, a user experience (UX) and human factors research agency based in Chicago. Bold Insight's research empowers designers to design products and services with confidence and deliver an experience users will love.

Michelle is a seasoned HR and operational leader with a background in compensation and benefits, HR systems, and processes and services, globally. She is best known for transformational workforce initiatives including M&A due diligence and integration, office launches, and the private-to-public corporate journey.

You can connect with Michelle on LinkedIn.

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