Good to Great
“I just don’t think ’great’ is what we’re ready for. Let’s tackle ’good’ first.”
What a relief to hear those words from an HR leader. Our line of work, in fact our entire purpose, is to help organizations improve. But that’s a lot like saying a doctor’s job is to make sick people healthy – a gross over-simplification. Much like a doctor deals with the gamut of ailments, from sniffles to salmonella, we see organizations ranging from needing a little tweak and nudge in the right direction to those needing emergency surgery. Unfortunately, the business reality is that we often want change and we want it yesterday, regardless of how bad the problem really is.
Case in point, a very optimistic client ran an employee engagement survey. They are a large enough institution that they have people of great quality, more than qualified to embark on an engagement initiative after having received their results. “Thanks, we’ve got this”, they said. And to some extent, they did. By working on three specific items, those scores went up…and every other score went down. There are many reasons why scores might go down but in their case, it came down to biting off just a little too much at once.
Creating change in an organization is a lot like spinning plates. If you spend too much time focusing on a couple of plates, the neglected ones are going to crash. This is a normal, human bias. We look at complex systems as a series of interchangeable component parts rather than, you know, a complex system. Our action planning defaults to “Put out that fire!” instead of being holistic and strategic about our path forward.
Employees Expect Action to Be Taken
The obvious remedy for trying to spin too many plates at once is to reduce the number of plates to a manageable amount. Unfortunately, no one buys a ticket to see someone spin one or two plates. A change initiative creates implied promises. One of our most oft-repeated refrains is that once you have started your change initiative, you have left neutral ground. Things will get better or worse, but they won’t stay the same. We have seen too many organizations do an engagement survey, shelve the results for a year, and act surprised when scores go down. Employees expect action to be taken, and each individual question on the survey communicates that an organization is willing to do something about it. If nothing is done (or perceived to have been done), employees lose trust in the process and in leadership. So now, even if nothing changed for the worse, employees are now looking more negatively at the same organizational behaviors.
The Sweet Spot
Thus far we have defined the problem as don’t try to do too much, but don’t do too little either! The solution to that is to play in the space between those two points. There is a sweet spot when you line up your organizational readiness and the scope of the change initiative that produces the best results. Miss the sweet spot, and you’ll likely fail.
Missing the Mark on Successful Change
As you can see, you could set yourself up for one of two kinds of failures when you miss the sweet spot.
The first type of failure is when you try to tackle too big of a change when you’re not ready. As demonstrated by our previous example from Florida, this is the classic overpromise-underdeliver scenario, the consequences of which are losing your employees’ trust in your capabilities and decreasing company motivation. We call this the crash-and-burn zone.
The other way to fail is by under-promising. This one is an automatic failure even if you are able to achieve your unambitious goals. Have you ever been in a classroom setting when the instructor asked a gimme question? What happened? We’ll bet that everyone sat there in silence hoping someone else would answer so they could all just move along, exemplifying the diffusion of responsibility that comes from feeling like your participation doesn’t matter. Aim low and whether you hit or miss doesn’t matter because you’ve already disappointed everyone and sandbagged your employees’ drive.
Finding the Sweet Spot for Success
Just as not all failures are the same, success comes in degrees as well. The “sweet spot” originated as a baseball term for the fat part of the bat that produces the best outcome when connecting with the ball. But someone who is untrained or unskilled in baseball will produce a substantially different outcome than someone who has prepared and built up the necessary capability to “knock it out of the park”.
Similarly, organizations should have realistic expectations on what change can feasibly come from an employee engagement initiative. If this is a new direction, or you lack the internal capabilities to improve, or if you don’t have clear and strong direction from senior leadership, your focus should be on creating foundational, behavioral change. Simply get people acting differently. This should create enough positive emotion from which to build a strong grassroots foundation that will lead you to the next level of change.
Cultural and Transformational Change
The next level of change is cultural and transformational. You’re not just changing people’s actions, but their very identity. This level of change cannot happen exclusively through grass-roots efforts. Eventually, you need buy-in from leadership in the organization. Culture is how an employee engages with the organization, its people, and its mission. It’s the ultimate expression of alignment and when done correctly, becomes the beating heart of an organization. As desirable as that sounds, it’s very difficult to achieve. And it’s impossible if you try it before your organization is ready.
Choosing the Right Amount of Change
Why does the same employee engagement survey, done for the 3rd time in a row, seem stale? Why is it no longer enough to run a survey and take a few high-level actions as a result? Because you’ve done enough to get the attention of the organization. You have increased your organizational maturity and it’s time to commensurately increase your ambition for change in order to stay in the sweet spot.
The key to tapping into the sweet spot is meta-organizational awareness – the ability to be brutally honest about your company’s readiness for change. If you want to avoid wasting your efforts, take a blunt assessment of where the organization stands before you attempt to increase engagement in your organization. Ask yourself, “What is our ceiling?” In other words, realistically determine your constraints or limitations. In our experience, the most common constraints are budget, lack of buy-in from key stakeholders, and lack of internal leadership capabilities. These constraints and others unique to your organization define the initial level of your ceiling.
Take, for example, a growing tech firm currently experiencing high turnover. They have a new HR leader who is singlehandedly trying to dam the river of attrition with twigs, pebbles, and strong language. Her entire organization is aligned around the idea of retaining employees, but unfortunately, there is not a lot of buy-in around using employee engagement as a retention tool. She shifted her focus from trying to make her organization a great place to work to making her organization a viable place to work. So employee engagement was placed on the back burner until her organization could successfully address the basic and foundational elements of employee satisfaction first. She was honest with herself and identified a realistic ceiling.
You can determine your own organization’s readiness by answering a few simple questions:
- How much does top leadership believe in employee engagement?
- Do leaders in your organization understand the behaviors and competencies that lead to engagement?
- How much emphasis is placed on the outcomes of engagement, such as employee retention, productivity, customer service, innovation, etc.?
- What resources do you have to implement change initiatives?
- What else is your company trying to accomplish that could take priority over engagement?
- Who owns engagement in your organization? I.e., is it a process owned by HR, or a value owned by leadership?
- What organizational capabilities are required for the level of change you are undertaking? Do you have those capabilities in your organization?
The power of these questions is evident when we take the same action and implement it in three different scenarios. Let’s say three different companies are not doing enough to foster the employee voice, but they want to help employees feel their opinions and suggestions are important to the organization. All three companies decide to implement an electronic employee suggestion box to give employees a confidential way to submit suggestions for improvement.
Organization A. In the first organization, leadership generally makes a big deal out of their value of caring. Every voice matters. And employees have bought in. They find identity in working here and are very invested in the company’s success. In response to employees wanting to be more involved, the suggestion box is unveiled.
Organizational Maturity: High.
Scope of Change: Low.
RESULT: The suggestion box feels like a slap in the face. Employees believe the organization is capable of so much more than a mere suggestion box. They are looking for real connection points to leadership. They want interaction.
Organization B. In the second organization, leadership knows how to talk the talk. Walking the walk is not as positive, and employees don’t feel like leadership actually means it when they say they want to hear suggestions. As such, implementing a suggestion box is a decent improvement that employees embrace. People submit suggestions but leaders in the organization don’t respond to them.
Organizational Maturity: Low.
Scope of Change: Medium.
RESULT: Crash and burn. Employees stop offering suggestions, because—as usual—nobody is listening. The experience only goes to reinforce and strengthen the opinion that the organization does not care about what employees have to say. Morale continues to drop and the next initiative will be even harder to accomplish.
Organization C. In the third organization, employees feel safe in feeding suggestions to leadership, but they lack an effective mechanism. They are willing to try the suggestion box, but more importantly, leadership is aligned enough to take the suggestion box seriously. It is presented as merely the first step in a larger change initiative.
Organizational Maturity: Medium.
Scope of Change: Medium.
RESULT: Sweet spot. Employees feel heard and validated. Crucially, leadership offered hope for bigger and better future change, a key component to making small change feel bigger.
If this sounds like a version of organizational Goldilocks, that’s because it is. Some change is too hot; some change is too cold. Like Goldilocks, your organization needs the change that is just right.
It’s not about trying to do the universal “right things.” It’s about doing the right thing for your specific organization based on your level of organizational maturity. If the capabilities of your organization dictate that you can only take on a few modest actions, take them on, realizing you are building a foundation for the future. Once the foundation is built and your organization is ready to take on more, you can start to take on the transformational activities that really change your culture and create an employee experience that drives engagement.