Podcast: Employee Engagement Survey Action Planning Best Practices

In this podcast episode, DecisionWise COO, David Long, and VP of Consulting Services, Charles Rogel, discuss best practices around employee engagement survey action planning.

Once employee survey feedback is collected, there are several ways to use the data to promote organizational change and improve employee engagement. We’ll review several approaches based on years of experience working with hundreds of clients. Topics addressed during this session include:

  • How to define your organization employee engagement strategy and best action-planning approach
  • The differences between enterprise-wide, department, and team-level action planning
  • How to form an employee action planning committee
  • How to shift ownership and accountability from HR to leaders throughout the organization
  • Best-practice frameworks and templates to facilitate action planning

Transcription

Charles: Hello, and welcome to our presentation on employee engagement action planning best practices. My name is Charles Rogel. I’m the Vice President of Consulting Services here at DecisionWise and I’m co-presenting with Dave Long. 

Dave: Hello, everybody. 

Charles: Dave is our Chief Operating officer here at DecisionWise and has a ton of experience when it comes to action planning with organizations around their employee engagement results. 

So, Dave and I are gonna go through and kind of first talk about the strategy around action planning. It’s funny, a lot of times when we do an engagement survey with a client, they haven’t actually thought about what they’re going to do with the results or how to use the results throughout their organization. So we’re going to lay out a plan and some options, but first your strategy is really important; to know what you can really bite off and do.

Then we’re going to talk about these different activities and who does them at each level and we’re going to talk about two major action planning processes at the organization, and then at the team level, and then pepper in a few additional options here at the end to consider.

Organizational Readiness for Action Planning 

Charles: So Dave, let’s jump into our first topic here and really talk about organization readiness, and we talk about this you know, again, most organizations they’ll come to us and decide to do a survey, but haven’t really thought through the process yet about what we’re going to do with the results. And so we’re trying to improve the organization. We’re trying to improve the culture or the experience that employees have. We haven’t thought too much about it. So then it takes us to this maturity model. And Dave, let me have you kind of maybe comment first as we talk about the different layers here, and then maybe I’ll add some color commentary as we go. 

Dave: Yeah. And there’s a few layers to maturity and we’re going to cover just a few of those layers today. But if you’ve never measured engagement or done anything about engagement, you still have a level of engagement in your organization. We just call that passive engagement. “Whatever happens happens.” We’re not measuring that. We’re not using it as a metric that we’re trying to understand or, better improve, it’s just kind of happening to us. 

Once we start measuring engagement, we’re looking for a few things. The first thing that we’re looking for before we can do much with engagement is we’re looking for a level of commitment. And what happens is oftentimes we’ll get an HR team or HR leaders that come us and they’ll start doing a survey and they have at least that level of leadership buy-in that they can run the survey, but there’s not a lot of commitment to what happens after the survey. So we’re looking for in the survey process and our process in addressing leaders and giving them the information that they need, we’re looking to build a level of commitment, so that at least the top layer of leadership has some buy-in to the process. And sometimes what we can do is we can have some executive sponsors that are part of the executive team that are kind of championing this along. We certainly want to build commitment through teaching them; What is engagement?, How do we build it?, et cetera. 

Once we have commitments, it’s sort of the gateway for us to do more. And what we really are pushing toward is not just kind of take responses from a survey and responding to them at the organizational level. Really, we want to drive engagement through the management structure, the leadership structure of the organization. And so we say, we’re transferring ownership of employee engagement from the HR team into the hands of managers. And this is where our action planning abilities and our action planning appetite becomes much larger than what we would maybe typically do. Say, we’ll do a few things as an organization.

Now we’re saying, look, each team, each manager looks at their own engagement scores, and they start saying, “I can build an action plan, and be held accountable and follow through on an action plan for my own area, and address some of the unique challenges that we’re facing in this area.” And once we have that, once we’re driving engagement through the leadership structure, then we’re at a level where we are able to access levels of engagement that we couldn’t when it was just the HR team that was driving engagement. And therefore, now we’ve got managers, we’ve got the leadership team bought in and we can begin to integrate.

Our engagement strategy to pretty much everything that we do, we can make it a strategic initiative. We feel like our people are part of our strategic advantage. Then obviously engaging those people becomes a very strategic and important strategic priority for us. And so we can begin doing that. We align our brand around it. We can look at our HR systems and make sure that we’re measuring for engagement throughout everything that we do. 

So these are kind of some of the steps that we might go through as an organization. And when we ask, what are you ready for? You know, when you’re first starting, you’re just moving from passive engagement. You may be ready just to do a few actions as an organization, but as you increase in maturity and you do more and more, you get more commitment, then your organization is ready for more. And then we start looking at the department and manager level and see what we can really do to hold them accountable, to give them some responsibility for this as well.

Charles: Yeah. And it’s funny because it kind of trends like; the first year you decide to do an engagement survey. Maybe you’re an HR professional and you finally got buy-in from the leadership team to run a survey for the first year. You’re going to go in with a more measured approach, right? So you’ll be at this commitment level.

You’re just trying to get people to be interested in the results and do something about it. But you might not have permission to get all managers on board and start action planning with their teams at that management level. So it takes some time to get them on board, but usually we find the good news is once you do an employee survey, everyone gets interested in the results and then everyone wants to start action planning around it. And once they see the data, they become more committed. So don’t worry too much. If you just barely got permission to do one, we’re banking on the back end that they will then be more interested in action planning on it. 

Dave: As soon as we introduce a number of them, there’s a game for them to play.

Charles: So yeah, it gets real interesting. 

Dave: It is interesting. 

An Approach To Action Planning – Listen, Understand, Act

Charles: So yeah, we’ve got how we typically do a survey; we create an action plan. We hope to improve engagement. So it’s a real simple kind of methodology here, but it’s a lot more complicated when you get in the weeds and you start looking at numbers and reports and things like that. So we’re going to kind of map that out for you here in a moment. This approach here you know, where we say, listen, understand, act, and then measure again to see if you’re really improving. And so the “measure again” piece is important because it puts stickiness and accountability to the survey process.

So when we understand that, “Hey, we’re expecting to see improvement in our next year,” survey results managers become more committed. You get into that management level of the maturity model where they want to see some change. Anything else here, Dave? 

Dave: No, I think (and this is just when we’re first starting out) this is kind of the process that we might go through. When we talk about driving engagement through the leadership structure, it’s going to be much more involved than just responding to the survey. There’s going to be other activities as well. Managers are going to be engaged in other things that they’re going to be worried about, trying to build and develop, but yeah, this is kind of the [moment] when we’re first dipping our toe in, we want to at least commit to this level. We’re going to survey, understand, act, and then we’re going to measure again for accountability purposes.

What Is Your Organization Ready For? 

Charles: And so the real question you want to ask yourself is what is your organization ready for? So, we always say you can keep measuring and reacting and just kind of going through the same exercise over and over again. But once you’re ready to be more proactive about this then you’ll start seeing better results. And we’re seeing that right now, as there’s this big resignation unfolding in the world and people are really focused on retaining their best talent. And so now we really want to be more serious about our employee survey results and create a great experience for employees so that they’ll stay, and hence this data is becoming more and more important to leadership. 

So, from here now, we’ve got a few models that we want to show you in terms of how you approach your data at different levels in the organization.

We’re going to be talking on kind of the leadership excellence or what we call kind of the executive team, organizational support kind of in the middle, and then managers and teams, and how to create action plans at each level. Typically we’d say leadership excellence, that your executive team, they’re responsible for really kind of setting the strategy and goals and being consistent, communicating, being kind of the cheerleader for the effort showing support but also being visible. Consistency is that word to come back to again, just kind of saying, “Hey, are we all on the same page as an executive team? And are we leading the organization correctly?” 

Dave: And this should exemplify what we’re looking for in the rest of the organization, from that level as well. 

Charles: Exactly. Yeah, organization support is kind of in the middle. So this might be a lot of what HR does in terms of helping to implement or manage policies and procedures, but also can be around collaboration between different departments. You can see we have things like: communication, incentives, systems, things like that. All the processes that either contribute or detract from a good experience or good workflow in the organization.

And then the last one is just around managers and teams. So how well is the manager actively leading their team to be successful? You know, you can see this when you do your employee survey; which teams are scoring higher or lower comparatively And where you need to focus efforts more locally to create a great employee experience there. All of these combine to create what we call the overall employee experience, where employees can choose to engage.

We always say it’s a 50/50 proposition. We need to create a great environment so people can choose to engage in that environment. And then the outcome is engagement. And usually we categorize people in one of these four groups; whether they’re fully engaged or fully disengaged based on a certain subset of questions on the survey. But all of these pieces kind of factor into that overall engagement outcome. Dave, anything else you’d like to add? 

How Significant is Performance Management and Training to Employee Engagement?

Dave: Yeah. Actually, maybe I’ll bring in a question here that from one of the people that are viewing. It says, “In your view, how significant is performance management and training to employee engagement?” I put both of those into the organizational support systems. I think they’re critical; performance management and training. 

First of all, training. It’s hard to set an expectation for leaders that they need to engage their people unless they know what engagement is and how engagement is created. They don’t have that. They should act on what they should be doing, what systems they should be putting in their departments and then put their teams in place in order for people to become engaged. It’s a critical part of that. 

And then performance management becomes the accountability piece of making sure that we’ve set an expectation. You’re engaging your people and here are the activities that you do in order to do that. And then we set that expectation. Once we do that, then performance management can become the way that we also hold people accountable for it. So I think it’s critical to engagement, especially when we start getting into the proactive engagement that we talked about, that is a critical component to developing a very engaged culture in your organization.

Analyzing and Presenting Employee Engagement Survey Results

Charles: Yeah, that’s for sure. We have another question about how to get the executive team bought in. We’ll touch on that in a moment, and that’s kind of more of an outcome of the entire presentation here today, too. 

So typical next steps. You’ve run the survey. The bottom step here is basically you would normally conduct a presentation to the executive team. As the HR team, you kind of create a slide deck. You analyze the results showing the summary day and really try to get them focused on the two or three items that we think are the most pressing opportunities or leverage points for success. 

So once they’ve had a chance to look at your data and kind of digest it a bit, then you’re prepared to summarize and communicate the results of the organization. Typically, this communication could be a summary report of all of your data, you know, just all the questions and the scores for the entire organization, as well as the actions you plan on taking. So, “Hey, we heard you, we need to improve communication, collaboration and growth opportunities.” Those are going to be our main focus going forward after you get buy-in from the executive team.

We’re going to talk about these two next levels of action planning. So this first one – action planning – this is at the organization level where the executive team gets to decide: what are the topics we’re going to work on? And then there might be a committee put together to work on those topics.

And then there’s kind of this department level or manager level role out. We’d cascade the results. Every manager that had five or more responses on their survey, for example, could get a team report where they do some localized action planning. 

And then finally, the measure progress step. You do the survey again. Typically we say every year you do a survey to kind of keep people accountable and on track.

Communicating Employee Engagement Survey Results to Different Levels of the Organization

So let’s dive into these. We broke these out by level. So, we’re talking about the organization. Here is what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to get the executive team to identify and really prioritize the themes or topics. We want some ownership from different sponsors. Like we don’t want the entire executive team to own every action item, but we want to put some people in charge of some of the things that we want to focus on, whether that be again, communication or growth opportunities. Typically at this level, some of these ideas or themes lend themselves well to a committee and engagement committee of employees, volunteer employees to work on creating ideas, and be the ears in the organization about this topic.

And they suggest these action planning ideas to the executive team to work on. And then the executive team is supporting that throughout the year at the organization level. They’re reiterating these topics and so on. So that’s the organization component that most companies will do with their results.

Dave: Even though the things that they work on at the organization level are broad and far, it should be applicable to the entire organization. And so sometimes it may be something very basic, but very important. And it would touch everybody in the organization. Those are the things that should happen at the organization level. Once you start saying, “well, it’s affecting our call center, but it’s not affecting the people that are in our branch locations” or, you know, I’m just giving an example. “It’s happening over at this department, but it’s not happening so much over here.” Then we switched to say, well, maybe this isn’t an organizational priority. Maybe this is a department level priority. 

Charles: Exactly. And that takes us into the department level rollout where we say, okay department heads. So each of the executive team members, they then look at their results. And so, I’ve done a lot of these and Dave, you have as well, where we sit down with the department head and look at their report and their online results and kind of sort through the topics for their group. Now it could depend. Maybe the department only has 10 people in finance. Maybe it has like 300 people in operations or in the call center, but they might have different topics or themes that come out of their results. And so it could lend itself to an action planning process where there are department level plans and we put together a department level committee. Now that typically doesn’t happen unless it’s a really big department and their needs are unique from the results.

Then if we go to the next phase, the managers, this is where there’s a lot of work that can happen. A lot of empowerment managers are interested in this data within their teams. Again, anyone that usually gets five or more responses from their team can get a report. And so here, we’re trying to, again, build that accountability. Think of that second level in that maturity model we were talking about before, where they’re now owning some of this data and being responsible to create some change. 

So here’s kind of a typical rollout. If you’re going to then cascade the information throughout the organization, you’ve got the executive team debrief and theme prioritization (which we’ll touch on a moment), typically you might do an overall presentation of the results to your managers as a group, and then you do an overall presentation or email to all employees once that’s done and you can put together your committee and then that committee works throughout the year to work on those organization topics or action plans. Now we’ll talk about the pros and cons of the committee and how I’ll become the bulk of our presentation here in a moment. 

The next tier is then once managers have gotten a view of the results, we deliver their reports to them and then we start either providing some training or, or an overview of how to interpret the results and do action planning at the team level. This takes some time. Normally this is like a couple years of getting them used to working with the data so they can be proficient at working within their teams to create some action plans. So we’ll talk about this, this methodology as well here in a moment. 

Then finally for you as an HR leader, we want to put together a real detailed plan, or at least a clear plan of expectations, timeframes. Who’s going to get results? When are they expected to turn in action plans? Things like that. So I can kind of see how we’ve cascaded the idea here from the executives to all managers, departments, and so on, just trying to make it clear so everyone understands who’s going to see what at what time, and what they’re going to be expected to do with it.

Getting Executives and Managers Involved in Employee Engagement 

Dave: And Charles, there’s a question that says that the executives are not proactive. It will be difficult to achieve the desired results. That’s very true. How do you get the execs and these managers involved? The first thing that we do is we get an executive debrief going where we introduce the concepts around engagement, the concepts that we’re measuring, and then we show them the numbers and more times than not showing them the numbers, especially when we compare that to other organizations through benchmarks, that gets executives interested in this. Even if we don’t get the entire team interested, do we get a couple of them to be more of your sponsors, the people that are going to champion this going forward? Do you have one or two of your executive team that would be there to be able to sponsor this? Ultimately, we’ll want everybody kind of excited and into this process of improving engagement, but we have to kind of start somewhere. 

We usually start with an executive debrief, which is one part training and another part informing them. And then a third part of “here’s what you need to do afterwards.” That’s a really good place to kind of get them involved in it and get them educated about it. 

But then once we have that whole group sort of educated, then we also need to have those champions within that group. So when we look at this process, that’s definitely something we want to account for, at some point. How are we building into the process? How are we going to involve the executives and get them interested and excited about this effort to improve engagement?

Should Action Plans Be Mandatory?

Charles: Yeah. A question came in about making action plans mandatory. Yes and no. So, if you are farther along in the maturity model and your executive team is saying, “hey, engagement is one of our strategic priorities,” then yes, we make action planning mandatory. But we’re trying to make sure that it fits in with other things that you’re doing because many times the action plans that they develop are the action plans they’ve already said at the beginning of the year with your team anyway to solve some of these problems. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. But we’ll talk about that here in a moment. That’s a good question.

A Scenario in Organizational Action Planning 

So let’s walk through a scenario here at the organization level in terms of action planning here. I’ve put together some dummy data around a sample company’s overall employee engagement survey results. And we can see that of all the questions on the survey, 66% of those were agree or strongly agree out of the 50 or so questions we asked. That dip below what we saw the year before, and it’s below what we’re seeing in terms of our global benchmark at 77%. So there’s an opportunity here.

Something changed, something got worse. Essentially as we’re measuring these same topics, we see on the right side here that engagement also dropped as we’re measuring it. So again, we’re classifying people into these different groups from fully engaged to fully disengaged, and we see that we’ve got more people that are more neutral or disengaged overall, compared to what we saw in 2020. So there’s obviously some opportunities here. People are seeing a difference. 

So what happened? Well, as we looked in the organization, corporate results are high, but field results were lower. We saw some good news around training and tools and resources, but advanced opportunities scored low and we saw lower scores from frontline managers around workload and stress.

And so there’s some recommendations here. One is, you know, we saw a lot in the comments around communication, for example, and then the other one would be kind of just around advancement, how that works. And so these could be our two takeaways or leverage points going forward. But again, we’re trying to get consensus at the end of this presentation with the executive team to say, what are we really wanting to work on? What capacity that we have to kind of work on these topics? And so we’ll show you a few models in terms of how to kind of sift through this data. 

So, the first one is, as we’re talking to executives, we kind of frame it as a summit meeting. So we’ve just gone through the results now. We want to get some consensus and focus here, so Dave, let me have you kind of walk us through these steps. 

Dave: Yeah. So essentially when we’re talking to executives, and this might be, you know…  sometimes we’ll give them a little bit of time between when we’re reviewing the results and when we have this actual meeting, but we are meeting with executives with the intention to say, we are going to be acting on the survey. We’re going to be taking some of this feedback and we’re doing something with it. 

And so the first thing we want to do is we want to decide on the engagement strategy that we want to take. Do we want to address this yet? What are we ready for? Do we want to address this just at the organizational level, take two or three things and try to improve them, or do we need to push this down deeper into the department level, and even further beyond that, the frontline manager level? We want to decide on that with the executives right then and there. We do that by having this conversation about maturity and readiness, to make sure that this is something that we’re ready for to move beyond just the organization action plan, but also we’re here to kind of prioritize some of the information we’ve seen.

And so we’re going to say, what are the things that are most important here? What are the things that are most actionable here and really prioritize the information and among those things that are really actionable and really things that we can prioritize, there’s some things that fit within the sphere of control of only the executive team or only the leadership team.

So we want to address those things at the leadership level. Remember we talked about the different levels. There’s one, that’s at the top leadership level. What can we do here? What are the things I can be doing? Is there a way that I can be, as an executive, better at exemplifying the behavior that we’re looking for? Is there an action that I can take? Do I need to add this to our monthly meeting? Do I need to make this a priority? There’s some things that we can do as an executive team to improve this area. And those are the things that we would then communicate. And then, what are the things that we would like more help from from the organization?

We can’t handle everything as a leadership team. We need to expand ownership beyond just this leadership team. They’re not the only ones responsible for engagement. And then we say, look, we can also bring in what we call ambassadors, people that come in. They’ve been nominated through a process. They come in and they’re gonna help with some of the action planning or recommendation building as we move forward. 

Charles: Yeah. I think of these as kind of your employee resource committees or groups. Sometimes organizations have a DEI committee already put in place here. We’re going to create an engagement committee. So then as you’re thinking through, or helping executives kind of sift through these priorities or topics, we want to say, “Hey, how important is this? And how feasible is this?” Sometimes there’s some quick wins. Other times they’re long-term strategic topics, like collaboration across the organization, for example, but we want to measure these out and get a feel for what we’re really committing to.

And then once you really understand those, you can kind of see where they fall in terms of prioritizing topics. So there’s some quick wins in this early impact. There’s others that are, you know, distractions or cosmetic changes. These strategic long-term goals will require more effort and may be a number of years to see improvement on some of those topics.

And then another way; Dave just touched on this idea of the sphere of control; what is within our control and outside our control. Let’s not get distracted by concerns that we really can’t influence. Maybe it’s around the economy or politics, things like that, that influence or impact our business. But we just can’t really anticipate everything. But some of the things we can actively action on. 

Categorizing Employee Feedback

So then we get to categorizing our feedback. So, another model here: sometimes we lack information and so maybe we decided we were going to do a focus group, or we need to understand this better before we can really decide to act on it. Other times we just need to explain, like we have some resources or policies or growth opportunities, or these other things in place that we just need to communicate more and get out there. And then lastly, we know what we need to do now. We just need to do it, that the feedback has been clear.

And so we can create an action plan. As we go through, this is another model to kind of help identify where we’re at in the action planning process. Once we’ve done a couple of those exercises, we can start taking these themes and really mapping them out. So typically we say, let’s prioritize it. Here I have a list of potentially seven things. We hope you come up with maybe five, and then you look at the top two or three that you want to work on. You identify the importance and feasibility, how much control. Maybe there’s notes over here that clearly define what we’re talking about. And you assign an executive sponsor to be the owner over this topic. And that might be the VP of HR who’s over advancement, for example. So you do this with each of your themes. So everyone’s real clear on what we’re talking about and what we’re going to hand off to the ambassador teams.

Ambassador Summit Meetings for Action Planning 

Charles: Okay. So then we talk about the ambassador summit. Dave, you want to jump in and just give an overview of what this is and what it looks like? 

Dave: Yeah, and this is something that we used to do in person a lot. We would go onsite and facilitate this meeting as consultants, but this can be a facilitator within your own organization as well. We do a lot of these virtually now. The virtual summits, honestly, don’t take six to eight hours. We’d like to make it kind of a day out of it, but honestly, a virtual summit has been about four hours. But essentially what we do is we plan a meeting where the purpose is, by the end of this meeting, we’re going to educate a group of people from the organization.

And what we usually will say is bringing a diagonal cross section of people from the organization, different levels. Maybe you have a manager from one department and a frontline employee from another department that you have a director from another department, but just the diagonal cross section of ambassadors that people that can come together and start evaluating what’s going on in the organization. What are we personally experienced in? What can we do about it? And the idea is that we would come up with an action plan by the end of this day, or at least a proposed action plan that we can then propose to the leadership team. 

Charles: Yeah. And so again, with this team, another similar model that we looked at with the executive team is a debrief to introduce them to what we’re talking about, engagement. What problem are we trying to solve? We go through the organization’s results. Everyone gets broken up or forms these action teams, maybe there’s three themes. And so we got 30 people in the group. We put 10 people on each team to address each of the three topics that we want to work on.

We take them through this action planning process that most of you might be familiar with: the current state, future state, and then actions to get there. And so with this model, this is a moment to show you how this will work, but here you can see that this is kind of a big deal.

It takes some time and effort. Do we have people? It’s a great opportunity for people. A lot of times, volunteers really want to be involved in something like this and see it as an opportunity, a growth opportunity for themselves. So if you’re using committees, this is just another way to use a committee for engagement. If you haven’t done this it’s a great opportunity to start with.

The Team Formation 

Usually if you have all these people in a room, you say, Hey, what theme are you feeling pretty passionate about? Let’s break up into groups. Everyone go to different corners of the room or the virtual rooms if we’re doing this remotely, and then let’s separate into teams. And then there’s some responsibilities. We won’t cover these. But what we’re trying to do is make the expectations clear on what the ambassadors are to do and not do. The benefit here is that they are great in terms of being the ears and eyes of the organization.

They kind of know what’s going on in their areas and can bring that information to the action planning table. Whereas executives, if they’re working on this without them, they have no context, where they have a lack of visibility. And so this is really helpful to get their feedback and input. Again, they’re really trying to come up with ideas and action items that will be approved by the executive sponsor and the executive team. So again, they’re not running on their own. This is kind of a real organized approach going forward. 

Dave: And this is a process that we’ve done with organizations just going through this for the first time, and we have done it with organizations that are going through this for the 10th time or 15th time. So it’s something that I think you can do, but it’s really best used where we’re trying to think of some things to do for the entire organization. 

And so when we’re doing this, we’re likely coming from different areas. We get this cross section of employees that come in here, but you’re all coming from the department you’re in and you come wearing the hat of that. We’re all coming together to say, what do we do? What are the best things that we can do? Two or three things that we can do to improve the entire organization that will be both impactful and feasible to do. 

Charles: Perfect. And there’s a lot of excitement, usually at the beginning of the day, when we get together and start this, you can see the processes. Interesting. Again, we’re trying to get them to describe the current state; what’s working or not working. Then what would it look like in the future if everything was working okay.

And then let’s build some action plans to get there. The problem we find is when people get into action planning and you’ll even see this as you’re debriefing the executive team on the employee survey results at the end immediately, they’ll start providing suggestions. They’ll describe action steps that they want to take. We should do this or this or this. And at this point, what we’re trying to do is hold the reins a bit and say, Hey, we haven’t fully explored what the problem is. And so we don’t quite know the right action plans to take until we do that. So in this exercise, you get a big flip chart. You get someone in our team to kind of take notes and everyone starts writing down all their ideas.

And this is kind of the big expansive brainstorming moment. You know, people go off on tangents, but they’re just throwing out all these ideas about why top-down communication doesn’t work, for example. We’re trying to capture all that, but as the team leader, they’re making sure that we’re staying here.

We’re not solving the problem yet. We’re just describing what’s not working. We want to make sure we get all these ideas down. Once they do that, we kind of cross off those things that are outside of our control, the spheres of control that we talked about earlier, and then we summarize this on one flip chart. There might be just five topics and you can see how simple these are in terms of the current state. So, we don’t know if it’s not timely, the feedback or communication is infrequent and so on. 

Once that is described, you’re almost done with action planning because it’s easy to then describe the future state. So if you don’t know what communication to provide in the future, we will know what type of communication to provide. If it’s not timely or frequent it will be timely and frequent. And if in the future, we’re going to prioritize the feedback. So this almost seems like a no brainer, but it really helps them to go back in and backfill with the action plans around each of these topics. 

And so if you can picture this, if you’re in a big room, they’ve created three big flip chart sheets. One has the current state, one has the future state. They placed the blank one in the middle with action steps, and just fill in these things about how we’re going to accomplish these action steps. So it comes out real clear and concise, because I’ve seen it where if it gets crazy, you end up with a list of 20 items and that’s too much. We’re trying to be concise. And really focused on the big leverage points. Anything else Dave you’ve seen or, or tips here on this process? 

Dave: One warning I would give you is at the end of the current state exercise, because everybody’s just kind of defined everything that’s wrong with the organization, the energy’s a little bit low. We usually like to take a little bit of a break before we start again. The energy gets really high once we start saying, “Hey, there’s some really simple things that we can do as an organization that would be very impactful.” They get excited about it. They really do and they bring that energy back to their areas and they let them know, “Hey, this organization cares about engagement. We’re doing some things to address the concerns that were given to us in the survey.” 

Charles: Yeah, and so as you’re facilitating, the groups are kind of off in their corners and they’re having a good time, sometimes it turns into a gripe session a little bit. You gotta be careful, but you’re trying to keep them focused on describing the state. That current state piece is the biggest part where we spend the most time because once they get that summarized and accurate, it’s easy to get to the future state and action plans at the end. So we usually say as you’re doing this, once everyone’s described the current state for their areas, maybe you have three groups, let’s come back as an entire committee and share what we’ve described and have the other teams contribute and talk back and forth.

The action plans then are presented to the executive sponsor, who comes back into the room at the end of the day. We typically don’t want the executives in because they could muddle things up. They come in at the beginning typically to kind of describe, “Hey, here’s what we want you to do. Here’s your mandate.” And then they come back at the end and the committee presents these ideas to them. And so they might have these recommendations here and there. We’ve structured them along these themes we’ve been talking about before, and they might say, “Hey, here’s all of our recommendations around communication.”

And as an executive team or executive sponsor, you look through these and say, “Hey, I think we have bandwidth to do bullets one and two on senior leadership and bullet point number three under organization support.” So we prioritize at this stage and we decide, what are we gonna tackle going forward and what are we gonna empower the committee to do? 

And Dave, I know on your end, you’ve had experience where maybe the committee just comes in and generates the ideas and they disband and other times they stick with it. So they meet monthly throughout the year to really put meat on the bones of these action ideas and even have ownership in terms of rolling some of these initiatives out.

Dave: Yeah, and I’ve experienced both things and I’ve seen them both work. But you know, if we’re having them disband after they give the recommendations, that we can have more say. This is more of a focus. Yeah, then it is like an ambassador group. If they’re ambassador groups, we put the label of ambassador on them because we want them to be an engagement ambassador throughout the year.

So we would want to keep them engaged in these efforts and even have them help. Like, if we’re adjusting the way we communicate, how can they help to arrange meetings or to prioritize information that’s going out. Let them become part of the solution. You will always benefit from expanding ownership of engagement. You will always benefit from that more people in the organization feels like they’re helping to drive engagement. You’re going to benefit from that. 

Charles: That’s great. Yeah. And usually executives are excited to hear as well, what these people have to say, because again, they’re kind of the eyes and ears of the organization. So they get some really good information in those groups. So again, there’s the organization outcome that we’re looking for. There’s kind of the exercise that you would take them through. Again, it does take some time, effort, and commitment. You have to decide are we in a stage where we value committees and have we had success with them in the past? And are we ready to make this commitment? So there’s your organization process. 

How Frequently Should You Perform Pulse Surveys?

Dave: And before we get to this Charles, maybe we can address some of the questions. There have been a couple of questions on, what if we pulse more frequently throughout the year, if we do like a quarterly pulse? And I’m actually a big fan of quarterly pulses, but it also goes back to the original question that we asked at the very beginning, which is what are you ready for?

If your organization is just dipping your toe into this, then I might say, you just do one anchor survey per year. And so are you starting the first year and just say, we’re going to do a single survey and our priority is going to be that we respond to this survey. 

But to the point of the person who’s asking a question about this, can this be part of how we hold people accountable? It certainly can be. On the anchor survey, we’re asking the list of like 50 questions. We’re casting a wide net to see how things are going generally in the organization. And then with each pulse, we don’t reprioritize. We’re still working on the same things. It’s just that the pulse is helping us understand how the things that we’ve done so far had any kind of positive impact. That’s how we use the pulse along the way. And so we get a full first pulse in the first quarter and we say, well, we had a positive impact or negative impact and what do we need to adjust?

What do we need to do now in order to say, okay, now we get to the next pulse. Are we having a positive impact here? So it gives a chance to adjust things so that we maximize the amount of benefit that can be done during the year, by the time we get to the next anchor survey. And we ask all the questions again, to try to reprioritize and say, all right, now we’ve addressed this thing now, where are we working on this year? 

Charles: Yeah. And that’s a good point because we always say, survey as frequently as you can respond to the feedback. Pulse surveys can kind of inform the progress and once you do this committee and then they start rolling out action plans. It’s still like three months, you know, after the survey is taking place that these action plans are then announced and starting to take hold. And so usually it’s like six months, you do a pulse to say, Hey, we’re making traction on these action plans that we just implemented three months before.

So again, you’ve got to kind of prioritize how quickly you’re responding and then how you’re using the feedback going forward. Otherwise, if you pull too much, people are going to say, I’m not seeing any change. I’m answering the same questions. What’s the point?

Dave: Again, it’s so important that you say, what am I ready for? Because if you’re not ready for pulsing, you can do more harm than good and pulsing can be enormously beneficial but you’d want to make sure that your organization is ready for it. And if you haven’t dipped your toe on this yet, it’s better just to start with a single anchor survey and make sure that you respond to that no matter how simply you did.

Charles: We always say, choose one thing. Just do something.

Dave: Yeah, do something. Every time you serve it, you want to make sure something gets better and nothing is worse. The way that you make things worse is if you try to do too much too fast. 

Charles: That’s right. And I have seen clients do a committee action planning summit and they’ll send me an eight page word document with 20 items that they’ve outlined. And I’m like, Ooh, that’s a lot, you know, maybe narrow that down. Sometimes it’s like, we have two topics, but we have like an action plan, a robust action plan for each. And so just make sure you do something cause you’ll get credit for it, if you do anything at all. 

How Do You Identify Ambassadors For Your Focus Groups?

Dave: And Charles is another kind of relevant question to what we were just asking about that I think we should address real quick as well, because it’s a really important one.Somebody asked how can the focus or ambassador groups be identified? We have people that say that they want to be part of such working groups, but who want to vent and complain. That is an important question because sometimes people will say, well, let’s just bring in the people that are always complaining. Bad idea. Or let’s just randomly select people to be part of this. Also a bad idea. 

So what we would rather do is we would rather have you go to your leaders, go to the people in your organization and say, let’s do a nomination process and for each area in your organization, you have people nominated to be part of this. And the nominees should be people that are among your more talented and engaged employees, people that have ideas and would really like to improve the culture and not just get together and complain. We’ve been part of it and that’s also why you don’t ask people to raise their hands and say, let’s take volunteers for this. The volunteers will often be the people that just want to come in and vent. I’m a huge proponent of doing a nomination process to bring people in. 

Charles: Yeah. And your job in HR is really to help kind of manage this and keep it simple. So even with the action planning, sometimes I think HR people feel like they kind of come out of this with a real robust action plan to provide back to the executive team to kind of show that we really got a lot of value out of this. Your job is to keep it simple and try to make sure that we actually execute and get it done. And the more complicated it is, the harder it is to actually succeed. So just another piece of advice. 

Manager Action Planning

Charles: All right, let’s change gears. Let’s talk about manager action planning, and we’re going to run through this relatively quickly. This is where a manager is going to get a report for their team. I’ll show you a sample of what we provide. I’m sure there’s various ways you can do this within your group using different tools and platforms. The first thing to keep in mind is when managers get reports from their team, there’s usually some questions about the manager interaction on that report. 

Usually there’ll be this response to feedback where if they see some low scores, they take it personally. We call it the SARA model, right? So this is based on the grieving model where first, you might feel some shock, anger, resistance, and finally acceptance. So understand that as you’re involving all managers in the organization, some are more or less mature when it comes to feedback and you’re going to have to help them navigate and kind of ride this rollercoaster a bit until they’re ready to really make an action plan with their team. So, yeah, these are kind of emotional topics that we’re talking about that you need to factor in. 

The next piece is a quick brief model. We’re trying to create awareness, create some action and then hold people accountable. So just remember the AAA model here around awareness, action, and accountability.

And then as you’re providing the report, here’s kind of a sample manager report. It has a lot of detail and instruction. Typically, there’s a section of low scores. Everyone zeros in on their low scores on their manager report. Here we can see there’s some questions about the manager, communication and feedback, creating an energizing workplace that scored somewhat lower and dipped a bit from the year before for this particular manager.

So again, there might be 10 people that responded to the survey within this team. And so now they’re really interested in their results and really focused on, okay, what can I do as a manager to improve in some of these areas and change some of these results? We recommend providing some ideas on how to maybe action plan on some of these.

And so our manager reports include some prescriptive recommendations. I’ve seen other organizations just kind of create a list of maybe 20 ideas or themes or topics that managers can work on. Because again, a manager is going to say, just tell me what to do and I’ll do it. You know, if I see low scores, I want to say let me work on those. Make it simple. And so these manager recommendations, again, you can create your own. We have some as well that we use to just help to kind of get the ideas going and give them some direction here. We’ve got some articles and things that we’ve cultivated from different sources, videos, things like that, so they can understand maybe how to approach communication with their team. 

From here, the action planning process is to try to keep it simple again. So we wanna make sure that they understand, the expectations are really clear, and that they’re going to present their action plan to their leader in the next 30 days. And we just want two or three goals. Keep it simple again. The less they have to work on, the more successful they’ll be.

How Do You Get Managers To Accept Feedback? 

Charles: And again, the question comes up, do you have any best practices to get managers from resistance to acceptance? Yeah, generally it takes some time, right? So if they’re in that emotional stage where they’re kind of resistant to this, they need some time to process. Most people come around pretty quickly and are ready to move forward. Other times their manager needs to get involved and say, Hey, let’s solve this together. What’s going on with your team? We need to see some improvement. And sometimes as an HR leader, and even with the executive team, you can set a benchmark and say, Hey, we expect all teams to be scoring at about this level within the organization, and if you’re below that, like the bottom 10%, we’re going to work with you to improve those scores. So it becomes real clear once they see how they’re compared to the organization results that they have some opportunity to improve.

Dave: I’d add to that Charles, a lot of times the resistance comes from the fact that you’ve jumped to accountability too quickly. And it feels like accountability. When you do things like you say, I require an action plan and I want to get updates on the action plan and you need to have your engagement above a certain level. You know, all those things feel like accountability. If you jump to accountability too fast, then you’re going to get a lot of resistance. And the reason why you’re getting resistance, and I think it’s fair, is because you’ve jumped to accountability before a reasonable expectation has been set. So a really good thing to do is if you’re doing this for the first time, you might hand out manager reports and not even require an action plan. You’re handing out manager reports in order to introduce them to the concept of engagement. They might not even really know what engagement is. They’ve probably heard it, but they don’t know, really, what it is or how it’s rated. So we introduced them to the concept. Maybe we will put them in soon for some training to understand here’s engagement. Here’s how we build it. Maybe we say here, this is where we’re just giving you the information this year. It should be really interesting for you, but next year, we’re going to take it to the next level. We’re going to start action planning on this and so we are stepping into accountability.

Again, what are we ready for? And if you have not communicated any level of expectation, then there’s no way that you’re ready to hold them accountable against an imagined expectation. So we gotta take this in steps and understand. We build maturity over time. It doesn’t have to take five years, but it might take a couple of administrations of the survey before we’re actually getting them to the point where we’re holding managers accountable. 

Charles: That’s really good. So, let me kind of walk through this a bit with you as well. So you know, with managers, we’re basically saying we want you to review these results yourself. We want you to share the results with your team. The team’s going to be very interested in how they scored as a group and then prioritize your opportunities to create some goals and take some action. So again, very simple. So similar to what we just talked about before, and then the evaluate and optimize part could be your pulse surveying that you’re doing throughout the year.

But checking in, like making this part of your weekly team meeting, we touch on the goals that we created around the engagement results. There’s usually two meetings. So again, we try to say, don’t jump into action planning in the first meeting, try to hold the reins a bit and really discuss the results of the current state mode. During the feedback meeting, share the results, get their observations, try to get a discussion going. Why do you feel that way? We’re trying to get people to kind of respond and get a dialogue going. And then you summarize what you heard, and go to the action planning group. And we’ve got some templates and kind of agendas to help walk through that as well.

Discussion Points for Feedback Meetings

In fact, here’s the talking points for the feedback meeting. What are the strengths and opportunities? It’s really simple. Again, we’re trying to keep it simple for managers here and get a discussion going. What can we talk about? Usually we say start with the good news. Don’t just zero in on what our low scores are and try to talk about those. First, let’s celebrate what’s working and then get into our opportunities. 

And then as you’re going through the feedback meeting, what are we going to discuss? Try to get some suggestions. Don’t force it again. You know, people are being quiet, you don’t have to force them to kind of respond.

And then when you’re looking at your goals, what’s relevant, right? So, sometimes it’s not even mentioned on the survey, but your team will bring up a topic that’s kind of been alluded to in the results, but not directly. And so let’s focus on that. What do we need to really do to improve the employee experience and make that our priority?

And then hopefully that distills into this action plan. So there’s several templates you can use to create action plans. You already might have some within your organization, but if we’re saying we want a goal around improving employee voice within the team, well, here’s some of the actions that we’ll take, in terms of every staff meeting we’re going to beforehand solicits ideas. And so we have these suggestions teed up and ready to go. We’re going to add those suggestions to the agenda. We’re going to implement a “walk the talk” program. Whatever the case is, you’re trying to put some actions towards this more nebulous goal around employee voice.

Then from here, this plan is kind of submitted back up the chain to HR, maybe to your manager. Sometimes you say, we require that you share this as a manager to kind of discuss and review. And it’s pretty simple. We’re trying to keep it simple with this group and there’s tools, I’m just trying to think as you’re doing this, you might have a hundred managers that are creating action plans. And so how do you manage that? 

You know, a lot of times in HR, you want it to be submitted and track who’s completed or not. Don’t get too into the weeds in the first year. Just try to be supportive. And you might actually have to co-facilitate some of these team meetings with some of your managers that scored lower, or are you going to say, yep. I know a few people that are stuck in the Sara model right now. I’m going to be the resource kind of stepping in to help facilitate that discussion.

Advice On Next Steps For Action Planning 

Charles: All right. So just a couple of things. Two additional options to talk about. One is Dave touched on focus groups earlier. You can do formal focus groups on your results, especially if you have to explore the data and are not quite sure which direction to take. And there’s best practice around doing that. We’re listing some of the items here, but generally you want to include a cross section of your employees. Really tee up maybe four or five questions that you’re talking about, or thinking about, in the results and help them fill in the blanks around some of the topics here. Cause again, your employee survey usually creates some more questions. 

Another warning is don’t ask too much of the results. So sometimes an executive will say, “well, what is this survey really telling us about growth opportunities? I’m not really seeing it in the results.” You can say, well, yeah, it’s not as clear. We need to do some focus groups to get some clarity around what they mean. But don’t be afraid to utilize these to get that clarity. 

And then the other one is – they’ve touched on this as well – is just training. So, we give people data. We’re expecting the action plan, but maybe they don’t quite understand what engagement means, how to improve engagement. What are the behaviors of the managers I need to do it? We have our own ENGAGEMENT MAGIC Training that touches on these. We focus on these five drivers of engagement: meaning autonomy, growth, impact, and connection. But you all might have your own engagement model and process and ideas or manager training program that ties right into this.

You know, once they get this data, managers are usually really anxious to make some improvements and changes. So whatever training and development you have for managers, usually it helps augment your rollout of the results. So try to tie those two things together. 

Just to summarize here, as we’re talking about this again, we talked about these action planning approaches by level. You decide, right? What do we have the capabilities for and the energy for? And if you’re in a busy time right now, you know, workloads high, we’re understaffed, it might be real difficult to roll out manager action planning throughout the organization if you’re in a real busy time of the year. So maybe you keep it at the organization or department level. But you have to kind of get a feel for how this fits in and how successful you can be in each of these tiers. 

Conclusion

Charles: So wrapping up, here’s kind of the summary. We touched on all these already. 

Determine where you are. This is a good discussion to have with your leadership team on that engagement, maturity model and where they want to be because that will then determine how much effort and commitment you’re going to get from them to roll out this program. Most times they’re pretty committed and they want to do some things, and so it’s not a hard sell once they see the employee survey results. 

Number two: You probably have a good idea as an HR leader how much organization change you can handle right now. So don’t force it, right? Like they were saying, maybe we’re not holding everyone accountable this first year for those manager reports. Maybe that’s a second year initiative that we roll out. 

But the number three is really important because whatever you decide, if your senior leadership is behind you and you’ve got buy-in and support from them then you can hold other leaders accountable to do their part. So you’ve got to get that buy-in going forward.

Your job as an HR leader, number four here, is really to set some real clear expectations, timelines, deliverables, support, materials, and whatever they need to really be successful. You’re the support arm there to help them accomplish this. 

And then number five is, again, you’re looking at some of those leaders that might need some additional support. You may be focused on the lower scoring areas. That’s where you’re spending the bulk of your time to really see some improvements this next year. Dave, anything else you’d add?

Questions and Answers 

Dave: No, but we do have a few more questions that we could go over here within the last few minutes that we have. First one is in this model, would employee engagement actions be measurable, performance objectives for managers?

So good question about, do we make the action plan something that becomes part of the performance objectives? I wouldn’t do that right away. What I would much rather do is if we’re going to make this a performance objective, I would define engagement for managers as a series of behaviors and activities and competencies that they should be building  managers, and then add that to a performance review to say, look, an engaging manager in our organization is going to help people with their develop in terms of growth and growing their careers. And so we built that as a competency. We put that into more of like a performance review that way, rather than saying your action plan itself will be part of your performance objective. I certainly believe in accountability around action plans. but maybe not as part of the normal performance review process.

Next question is an interesting one that I think we deal with a lot. How would you handle an executive who gains access to the survey results before executives have been debriefed and distribute the information to managers without context or analysis? We would call this not a best practice. As DecisionWise, when we do this, we try to get the information in the hands of the executive team as quickly as possible with as much context as possible. And so, after the survey’s over, we’re trying to within a week or so, make sure we’re getting that information to the executives by way of a debrief where we can offer a lot of context and everything else.

I would really, as much as I possibly could, try to block something like that from happening. And if that means you move up an executive debrief as quickly to the close of the survey as possible, then I think that’s what you should do. And the best way to do that is to plan ahead of time and say, you know, a month ahead of time, get it on everybody’s calendar so that, you know, the survey closes this day and three or four days later, we’re going to have a debrief of this team.

Charles: And if you have access, or if you have control over distribution of the results, then you can say, “Hey, we as HR will then distribute the reports to managers on this day,” once those steps are coming. 

Dave: Yeah, absolutely. Last question that we’ll take today is, how do you think the COVID-19 pandemic impacts employee engagement efforts? It impacts them a lot. And in fact one of the things that we have seen in our data over the last two years has been that there’s a lot of employee burnout. And when we have burnout, it’s something that we have to address and we have to take care of that burnout before we can look into the things that are kind of higher level engagement things.

And so it means that we get more basic with our action plans that we’re saying, how do we address the stress of employees? How do we make sure that they are enabled to do all the things that we’re asking them to do in a difficult time? How do we ensure that they are equipped to work from home (if that’s the situation they’re working or to work safely at work)? You know, how do we make sure that we can all meet together safely if we need to be in person? And so it does impact things. A lot also means that some of these summits and things like that will happen virtually. 

Charles: Great point. Yeah, so just to conclude, hit us up if you saw something here that you liked, and maybe we can send you a template or two, some of the things that we use here too. So you can use those internally, but thanks again, everyone for joining. Dave, thank you very much for all your contribution here, and we hope that you join us on a future session. Thanks everyone. Bye now.

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