Bridge the engagement disconnect

In the world of business, it’s said time and again that people are an organization's greatest asset. But is this reality—or cliché?

The discussion about engagement in the HR world—in articles, publications and at conferences—reveals a disconnect between what organizations believe their people need and what their people say they need to remain engaged.

Engagement surveys aim to bridge this disconnect, delivering raw insights about issues or drivers from the employee perspective. The goal is to use these results to help inform new initiatives and processes, across organizations and at local branches and sites.

The exercise is a step in the right direction but unless HR leaders manage this properly, it's just that--a step. No real impact, no real change. Here are some ways to make it work.

Reflect on the what and the why. Feedback, in all its forms, is a gift. To know what’s happening, what’s needed and what’s important to a population is half the battle.

Survey exercises offer a helpful launch pad of general questions, but the idea is for leadership to take those answers and reflect on the what and the why. They should drive more questions about us and our teams and move us to examine activities to determine if they are effective and meaningful.

Let's say, for example, the current practice for celebrating anniversaries is a meal. Your survey results indicate that staff wants recognition but very few people turn out to these anniversary meals. Now what?

This is the perfect opportunity to explore other ways to express appreciation. Maybe it's a personal note, or a giving kudos to a team member during the morning huddle. Or maybe it's a big shindig once someone hits a significant milestone. The point is that the question about what your team finds meaningful is worth asking. And asking again.

Guard the purpose of the investment. HR leaders bring consistency to the process. We understand--and help balance--the vulnerabilities of the employees and the organization.

Starting with privacy. Within the HR world, confidentiality is pinnacle, and trust takes time to build. We defend that in all we do.

Even then, some employees will be skeptical, especially if you’re embarking on a survey process for the first time. They want to speak openly but they don’t want their answers and candor to come back and bite them. Communicating dissatisfaction with the company or a manager may be a risk they don't want to take.

That's a fair concern. Leaders can get defensive about responses to the "needs improvement" aspects of a survey. They are deeply committed to their work and teams so it's no wonder they take these results as a personal reflection of their contribution. Some may discredit the results, poke holes in the validity of the information, decide not to cascade results or attempt to find out who said what.

Don't let this happen. This is the critical moment to speak to the purpose of the investment—improve engagement, foster trust, grow the brand. If a leader halts the process or disrespects those who contribute, it speaks volumes to what matters to the company, even if it doesn’t align with what the company is really working toward.

Most leaders, when reminded of what’s at stake, will extend patience with the process. Some though, will have trouble dealing with the responses. Plan to pay more attention to them during the course of the survey. They will need help distilling feedback—not letting frustration color judgment—and creating plans for constructive action.

Know that one is not done. One survey will not provide all the answers. In fact, usually the course of a survey includes one major and several follow-up pulse surveys with some cadence. Focus groups work too. Gather together a group of volunteers from your site to talk through a work challenge. The goal is to keep the door of communication open and provide specific answers on topics—benefits, development, the last company picnic—that matter to your staff.

Commit to this process for a few years--monitor what changes and what doesn’t. Look for common indicators and test ideas. This shows your organization's ability to adapt through data and feedback. It’s not only about asking questions. It’s about asking different questions and trying to better understand the reasons behind why people stay or go.

Set aside your comfort zones. It’s been said that people support what they create. If your team is committed to sharing constructive feedback and participating in groups aimed at improvement, be receptive to a new path. Give them parameters—budget, policy—so they have space to work in and guidelines to succeed (it’s frustrating to come up with an idea only to have rules or constraints added as an afterthought).

It's much easier to talk about engagement than it is to be neck deep in a process—launching the survey, monitoring participation, results cascading and planning follow-up actions. But the work is meaningful and transformative. Done right, engagement exercises can serve as an effective vehicle toward understanding and improvement.

Jasmine Grissom is a human resources professional with more than 12 years of experience in the field of manufacturing. She is a wife and mother who finds joy in all things creative and a well-folded towel. Grissom is a graduate of California Lutheran University.

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