My company runs an annual employee survey in the name of Continuous Improvement, but nothing ever really changes. Now, my boss has asked me to come up with a better way. Frankly, I think the whole “polling the people” thing never works. Shouldn’t we just switch to a town-meeting approach?
—Name withheld, Waterloo, Iowa
It’s so easy to hate polls, isn’t it—especially now?
Everywhere you turn, you’re bombarded with dozens of “expert” surveys about who’s going to win, where and by how much. Then, a few hours later, the poll results change, or turn out to be way off, and the pundits start hyperventilating. You’re left thinking that—as you put it—the “whole polling the people thing” doesn’t actually tell you much about anything.
Don’t go there.
Maybe political polls have their flaws—obviously, they’re an inexact science—and sure, companywide “town meetings” do generate meaningful debate. But effective employee surveys are, in fact, a form of polling that really works.
The key, of course, is the word effective. Unfortunately, too many employee surveys concentrate on the kind of incidentals that get a lot of nattering in the hallways but rarely matter outside company walls. Maybe that’s why nothing meaningful ever seems to change at your company after the results come in.
Effective surveys, by contrast, are devoid of the usual triviality about parking spaces and the lunch room. They’re hard-hitting and totally confidential. They focus on the issues that really matter.
They do so by delving into four distinct areas. First, they probe whether employees truly buy into the company’s mission and its major initiatives. Look, leaders can pontificate all day, but that future they desire will never arrive if employees don’t understand why a change in direction will advance the company’s competitive position and their own careers.
That’s why, if you’re moving from a product-driven to a service-driven strategy, for instance, make sure your survey asks employees how much they agree with statements such as, “I clearly understand the role service plays in the success of this business,” and “I support the use of our best engineering talent to upgrade the technology of our service offerings.” Never assume buy-in. Measure it.
Second, effective surveys probe whether managers walk the talk. There’s something inimitably motivating about an authentic manager who does what he says he will and lives the company’s values. Surveys, by dint of their confidentiality, can shine a light on this key driver of employee engagement. They can test, for instance, how managers behave when it comes to fighting bureaucracy or promoting on merit. Further, they can measure whether senior management is in touch with reality by asking for each employee’s level of agreement with the statement, “What I read about this company in the newspaper and annual report is consistent with what I experience at work everyday.”
Third, effective surveys probe how the company is performing relative to the competition. In time, of course, the marketplace will deliver this information to you, but employees are often the first to know where the company is falling short. Is it technology innovation? Is it quality? To find out, good surveys get gritty, asking employees how much they agree with statements such as, “Our new pro-ducts and services closely match what our customers want,” and, “In two years, our current technology programmes will make sure we remain the market leader.”
Finally, effective surveys probe the quality of the company’s people-management system. If you want the best team, you’ve got to have a top-notch HR programme, where people receive frequent, candid appraisals and are paid according to performance.
That’s why the most effective employee surveys ask employees to react to statements such as, “This business promotes the most capable people,” and, “This business deals decisively with people who don’t perform satisfactorily.” On these, any response less than a “strongly agree” demands action.
And action is, ultimately, the measure of any effective employee survey. The polls that leave you cold—at your own company and in the “real world”—do so because they have meaning for about five minutes. An effective employee survey never really goes away. Its results are shared throughout the organization, and then managers are really, truly held accountable for closing the gap between what people say needs to change and what actually does get changed.
Of course, no company (or country!) should be managed by polls alone. But as polls go, employee surveys can be a powerful force for continuous improvement. We’d vote for them any day. ©2008/By NYT Syndicate
Write to Jack & Suzy
Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Campaign readers can email them questions at winning @livemint.com. Please include your name, occupation and city. Only select questions will be answered.