I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count all the times I’ve been asked, “When’s the best time to run an engagement survey?” Of course what people are actually asking here is, “When will we have the best chance of getting the highest engagement score?”
This, of course, is a perfectly reasonable question to ask. However, the reality of our current VUCA working world, where change and transition are constants, is that the ‘best’ time in the traditional sense just doesn’t exist anymore.
So, against this backdrop we need to alter our approach if we’re to get the desired business outcomes from running an employee survey. Perhaps McKinsey can help us…
The current organisational context
First, consider the common challenges facing today’s organisations; business change, organisational restructuring, complexity and ambiguity on an unprecedented scale. As a result of these things, employees are feeling increasing uncertainty around issues we know to be key drivers of engagement, such as job security, clarity on career development opportunities, and role expectations.
What are the implications for employee surveys?
A knock-on effect of all this uncertainty is that the employee engagement survey purpose must change too, and it’s arguably becoming more crucial than ever before. That’s because getting a read out on how well (or not) your organisation is navigating turbulent times provides valuable feedback and direction on how and where to act to maintain or increase levels of employee engagement over the medium-to-long term.
A model for managing change
When seeking advice on how to manage change, the McKinsey model of influence (see below) is a great all-rounder. Its ‘four building blocks of change’ helps us to think about how to successfully steer our organisation through transition, and what’s really required to shift mind-sets and make behavioural change stick.
Furthermore this model can also help us to recognise what’s needed to help our leaders and managers create effective post-engagement survey action plans that are inclusive, impactful and robust enough to win hearts and minds, and drive up employee engagement regardless of when you survey.
The four building blocks
Using the principles behind McKinsey’s model as a basis, here are our four key cornerstones of an employee engagement programme, which should help deliver your desired business outcomes.
1) A compelling story
This should be weaved through your engagement programme from the outset, delivered by your leaders and cascaded down to managers.
The survey communications you send to employees are critical in helping them to understand why they’re being asked to complete a survey in the first place, and why they should get on board with any action plans afterwards. People want to know and understand the ‘why’ and you’re much more likely to get employee buy-in for behavioural or process changes if that understanding is there.
Perhaps try tying this into your employee value proposition too, demonstrating that yours is an organisation that listens to employee feedback and acts on it to ensure the employee experience in line with what you’re promoting. Suffice to say, it’s worth spending some time to get your engagement programme narrative right; this will pay dividends when you want to implement changes off the back of your employee survey results.
2) Reinforcement mechanisms
Associations and consequences shape behaviour, so you must have the structures in place within your organisation to support what you’re trying to achieve. For example, say that one survey action is to establish a feedback culture within the business. This is actually a pretty common one, with increasing demand from employees in recent years for open, candid feedback from colleagues and managers. Some of the questions to consider here might be:
- What mechanisms and tools do we need to enable this behavioural change and for it to become embedded?
- How will people be held to account for this behaviour?
- Does our current behavioural framework/360 feedback questionnaire support these new behaviours and make expectations clear across levels and roles?
- Are our people’s PDPs aligned to this organisational objective and supportive of it across our employee population?
Without alignment of systems and processes to the actions being asked of people, it’s much more difficult to embed and it can fall by the wayside or be seen to fail, resulting in disillusionment and frustration for employees.
3) Scope to develop talent and skills
Having processes in place is one thing but the bigger challenge is arguably empowering your people to implement new behaviours and ways of working. Take the example of creating a stronger feedback culture. You’ll need to ask:
- Do our leaders and managers have the capabilities required already to give feedback constructively?
- Is everyone doing this consistently?
- Do people have opportunity to provide feedback within the structure of 1:1 meetings or the PDP process? Are they empowered to do so? And is the permission and autonomy there?
Creating an environment that truly supports post-survey business actions and behavioural change is a determining factor in the overall success of action plans. You can further improve the odds by ensuring your people, particularly managers who will play a key role in influencing behaviour change, have access to any training or development resources needed to help make change happen quickly and painlessly.
4) Role modelling
One of the single biggest reasons that behavioural change initiatives or post-survey action plans fail is a lack of sponsorship and/or demonstration of the behaviour(s) in question from leaders.
Without this kind of role modelling, employees will likely start questioning the ‘why’, reducing buy-in. People have a tendency to mimic the behaviours being demonstrated around them in their ‘in-group’, sometimes sub-consciously, so if they’re not seeing their leaders ‘walk the talk’ consistently, they’ll naturally ask themselves, “Why should I bother?”
For example, if you’re introducing something like a leadership 360 feedback programme, it’s always best to start with senior leaders and cascade from the top down.
And when it comes to embedding new behaviours or a new leadership style, make sure you’re supporting the leaders whom you want to act as role models. It’s imperative that they have the confidence, knowledge and agility needed to demonstrate and then cascade down the desired behaviours.
A ‘lightbulb moment’?
So, while there may no longer be a ‘best’ time to survey, there is a new blueprint and narrative for your engagement programme. Keep in mind that your employee survey offers an ideal opportunity, at any time, to uncover how your people perceive your organisation to be managing and adapting to significant changes taking place either inside or outside of your walls. You never know, your employees’ feedback could very well hold the key to a ‘lightbulb moment’ or the unlocking of a significant competitive advantage.