At DecisionWise, we use the Listen, Understand, and Act model to help guide our clients in their employee listening programs. In this blog post, I would like to focus on using a different mental model to help us understand the employee experience (EX) from a unique perspective.
The “Gap” Model
Frequently, during the survey debrief sessions we facilitate, leaders naturally start applying what we call the “gap” model. They look for each place where they see gaps in their survey scores. These are either gaps they see in comparison to defined benchmark scores, or gaps that exist because scores don’t line up with what the leaders had hoped to see. Here is what a typical gap model looks like:
- Ask questions
- Examine the responses
- Identify the gaps
- Try to understand (sometimes, guess) why the gaps exist
- Take action to close those gaps
To be sure, a gap analysis is a helpful way to see where change is needed, but gaps don’t necessarily tell you: (1) if action should be taken, and (2) gaps don’t provide much indication as to correlation, let alone causation. Also, a gap analysis doesn’t paint a complete picture because it can’t tell us whether a gap necessarily matters to our employees; it only identifies a gap’s existence. Additionally, there is another feature of a gap analysis that can be problematic. Sometimes, finding the gaps becomes the goal instead of understanding the data. It’s as if our brains go on autopilot, and finding the gaps becomes a game of “whack-o-mole.” It might be fun, but for what purpose?
Invert Your Thinking
Instead of focusing on an organization’s gaps, let’s invert our thinking. We start by focusing on the outcomes we desire instead of concentrating on the steps needed to get there. Put simply, we define our end-goal, and then working backward identify those forces that support change towards our objective or forces that impede our progress. You might call it “thinking backward.”
Inversion has been used by philosophers and scientists for years, but Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s long-time business partner, was one of the first to apply it in the business world.[i] Munger pointed out that it is much easier to find success by knowing what to avoid (having worked backward from your goal) than it is to find a formula that outlines all the helpful things you might do. Put differently, the list of things to avoid is much shorter than the list of things you could be doing.
Consider the analogy of a perfect meal. There are lots of little things that will make the perfect meal experience – countless touches, ingredients, flavors, etc. However, a single hair in your soup, and the experience is ruined. No amount of flavor will counteract such an unpleasant sensation.
Employee Experience No-Nos
In our experience, Munger’s theory is often true when building and measuring the employee experience. There are many things you can do to help, a little here and a little there. There is, however, always a core list of things you should never do – employee experience no-nos. In a world that has been seriously disrupted by COVID-19 and corresponding economic stress, it might be wise to think of what we should avoid instead of worrying about what we should add. Let’s improve our capability by narrowing our focus.
So, during this current stressful period, let me suggest the following approach to avoid those pesky EX no-nos.
- Define what your employee experience would look like if you had a magic wand to help you during the current chaos.
- Consider the forces that support your ideal state (positive forces).
- Consider those forces that might block your ideal from happening (negative forces). Put most of your focus here!
- Keep listening to your employees. Use open-ended text questions to get your employees’ unfiltered assessment of what they are experiencing.
- Instead of using a traditional gap analysis, focus primarily on the data that helps you gain insights into your positive forces and negative forces.
- Don’t use employee feedback as a way to evaluate things; instead, use it to understand what you should avoid.
You might even consider augmenting your research with small focus groups. You might ask your study participants something like, “Other than pay and benefits, describe what is most frustrating about your employee experience right now.” Or, you could ask them to rank a list of items from least frustrating to must frustrating. Of course, you will be introducing negative sentiment into the equation, but that’s okay because we are anticipating receiving negative comments. Please note that we recommend focus groups in this context because asking broad, negatively focused questions in a wider survey would probably introduce more dissatisfaction than it would provide effective insights.
Build Your Own Employee Experience No-Nos List
Now, expertly armed with your insights, you can start to build a common, shared list of experiences, scenarios, or behaviors that should be avoided. Publish this list of EX no-nos. Teach new managers what this list means. Remind senior leaders why avoiding these items is vital, especially as organizations attempt to retain their best and brightest talent in these uncertain times.
In summary, this blog post is little more than a reminder to follow the wisdom of “begin with the end in mind,” and pay close attention to your detractors because their influence is often disproportionate. Pound for pound, in the current environment, it is better to avoid EX no-nos, than it is to offer a long list of perks and enhancements.