Can You Trust Your Employee Survey Results?

Manager engaging with employee

What if I told you that 26 percent of your employees either blatantly lie or inadvertently misidentify demographic questions on employee surveys?  If you’re like most managers we work with, you’ll immediately distrust the survey process and its reported data—and that’s completely fair.


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The fact is, when employees are asked demographic questions (e.g., department, manager, tenure, job class, age, or gender), 26 percent of them respond incorrectly.  Perhaps these employees lie for fear of excessive respondent transparency; perhaps they lie because they distrust the intentions behind the survey and seek to sabotage its validity; or, perhaps they misidentify because they simply don’t know the answers.  Whatever the reason for the inaccuracies, the statistic still holds true; we’ve tested and validated this conclusion with a broad set of our clients, and continue to find the same error rate.

How do we know?  When we conduct employee surveys we can track responses based on email address or some other unique identifier.  We receive a file from the client that includes demographic information like tenure, department, manager, etc. and match it to the unique identifier. On some surveys we asked for demographic information on the survey and then compared responses to the data provided from the employee file to find the discrepancies.

Bad demographic data kills action planning

While cumulative employee  survey results are accurate in aggregate (the questions that deal with engagement and satisfaction), these responses cannot be effectively separated by department or manager by relying on employee responses to demographic questions.  This is especially important when you are trying to report down to front-line managers and conduct organization-wide action planning. Not many things are more embarrassing than providing the operations manager a report for her department that lists 122 total respondents, while her department only has 97 employees.  Whoops.

The solution?  Design a survey that codes demographic data behind the scenes.  Instead of asking employees identifying questions (which can cause people to not participate), use a system that allows you to track responses yourself.  This is the practice we employ, and the strategy we recommend to all of our clients.  By making demographic data a pre-programmed part of the survey, your results will be just as accurate as the company’s HR records.

Now I know what you are thinking: “What about confidentiality? What if employees find out?” Transparency is the key.  If there is a low-trust environment, then wait a year or two to track demographic information.

During the first year, report the data at high levels and share the results with employees.  During consecutive years, filter the data down the management chain so employees can meet to discuss what to do in their work groups.  Only the executive team and HR should be able to access employee survey results covering all demographic categories and departments as long as data is provided in groups of five responses or more.  This will protect anonymity and confidentiality.

When you’re ready to start this year’s employee survey, ask yourself how you want to track responses.  If you plan on using demographic data gathered from the survey, don’t plan on being able to deliver accurate reports to department managers.

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Why STEM Education Could Be Bad for Your Business

Early in 2006, US President George W. Bush announced the American Competitiveness Initiative. Formulated as a plan to provide US government financial support to specific academic initiatives, the plan called for significant increases in investment in fields related to STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. President Obama announced over $240 Million in additional STEM funding during the White House Science fair; the website site claims that the President’s initiatives have garnered over $700 million in public-private partnerships along STEM lines.  Given the momentum and importance, these initiatives are not likely to die down soon.  But could the STEM emphasis actually hurt business?

The STEM concept has been emphasized globally, and rightly so. Ensuring global education in these 4 critical areas is essential.  These are certainly important to success. However, it also brings up another concern. The reality is that an individual’s success in education, business, organizations—you name it—requires more than STEM. Notice something missing here?
These “hard skills” are easily defined. We all know what “mathematics” entails, and can therefore develop curricula or programs around this. We can also evaluate these hard skills within an organization.  However, while an individual may possess the “hard skills,” he or she may be severely lacking in the soft skills.

Several years ago I coached a group of individuals brought together for a high-profile international research project. Four of these scientists, in particular, were geniuses, each possessing multiple doctorates in the field. They were at the top of their fields— “STEM on Steroids” poster children.

So why the coaching? Despite their natural and acquired levels of genius, these individuals simply could not work with others, nor could they articulate their brilliant ideas to others in any way that would make these concepts usable. Their team meetings were chaotic and they left of wake of employee bodies whenever they interacted with others. Geniuses, maybe, but socially inept and severely lacking in leadership.

A singular focus on STEM, at the expense of other equally important areas, often causes problems that permeate today’s organizations. But, the issue is not with STEM itself, per se, but the thinking behind it, at the exclusion of other important topics.

Let’s step out of STEM for a moment, and into the organization, where STEM-think is apparent. More often than not, managers hire people who mirror their own skills, abilities, and desires. In other words, “in my organization, it’s easy to identify the best employees. They’re ‘just like me!’”
In some of our most recent research, we’ve looked at top-down performance evaluations, and compare these to the way the boss rates that individual on other instruments, such as 360-degree feedback. Employees receiving the highest performance ratings tend to be those employees with similar strengths as his/her boss, when comparing 360-degree profiles. So, if the boss is good at understanding the financials, he or she is likely to look for the same financial acumen in a direct report.  Again, the best employees are just like me!

Back to STEM. The increased emphasis in STEM, while important (and even essential), emphasizes the “just like me” factor. The reality is, the best employees (or students, volunteers, etc.) are NOT necessarily those with similar skills as the boss. In fact, most times, this is actually detrimental. This thinking reiterates the flawed notion that, because some individuals feel the four STEM factors are most vital, we should ALL focus on these four factors—often de-emphasizing other critical components of educational or organizational success.

Which brings us back to the four geniuses.

These men, while possessing keen intellect, lacked other critical success components, such as leadership, interpersonal skills, organization, delegation, communication, negotiation skills and, unfortunately, integrity. Many of today’s organizational initiatives and measurements miss these soft skills, which are so vital. They, instead, focus all their energy on STEM-like initiatives. Because of this, organizations and individuals today are often strong in the job-specific, hard skills, yet weak in the soft skills that make the hard skills work.

STEM (or whatever this list of key job-specific competencies is in your organization) is the price of admission. However, focusing solely on STEM-like competencies at the expense of other soft skills could be disastrous.

So, my solution? How about something more like “LICE”—Leadership, Interpersonal Skills, Communication… and Everything else. OK, not a very attractive acronym, particularly when mentioning “lice” in a school system. It needs work. However, performance and success are not only factors of what gets done, but how things get done. Focusing solely on the job-specific or STEM-type competencies in an organization (or in education) misses many of the other critical factors in an individual’s success.

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Four Barriers to Leadership Intelligence

As we work with leaders to provide 360-degree feedback, we encounter four common defense mechanisms that people use to discount negative perceptions they find in their report.  We call these “barriers to leadership intelligence” because they prevent leaders from gaining the self-awareness they need to become better leaders.

Taken from principles of psychology, these barriers include the following:

  1. Naïve Realism: This philosophical concept explains that each of us thinks we see the world directly, as it really is.  We also think that what we see is what everyone else sees.  When we receive feedback about ourselves that is contrary to our point of view, we discount the feedback by rationalizing that others have not been exposed to the relevant facts or they are blinded by their own interests, ideologies, and biases.
  2. Self-serving bias: This is a tendency to use or make dispositional attributions (put our own spin on) for success, and situational attributions (explain away or justify) for failures.  If I do something well, it is because I am skilled and work hard.  If I make a mistake, it is because I did not receive the correct specifications from the engineering department or I was not given enough time to complete the task.
  3. Ego Defenses:  We tend to react to contrary feedback in a way to maintain our self-concept and esteem.  Sigmund Freud claimed that individuals tend to repress, identify (incorporate), or rationalize away information that threatens their ego.  These reactions manifest themselves in a variety of ways including manipulation, denial, or distortion of the feedback.
  4. Negativity Bias:  This is a tendency to focus all attention on negative feedback.  We find that individuals get “hung up” on any negative information from their 360-degree feedback survey and have trouble seeing the positive ratings in their results.

The good news is that all of these barriers are relatively easy to overcome by helping individuals recognize when they arise.  When leaders are able to accept the feedback, they are then able to leverage it to change needed behaviors and become more effective leaders.

Which barrier do you see most often?  Do you find yourself confronting any of these barriers when you encounter feedback that is not congruent with your self-perceptions?

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Team Effectiveness: Getting Alignment on Purpose

This is the time of year that I interrupt my regular reading to revisit my favorite book. For the second year running, I’m “reading” Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, unedited. By “reading” I mean listening to it in the car as I travel to and from work every day.

When I shared my enthusiasm for the unedited edition with one of my co-workers, he was incredulous. “But, you have to go through page after page of the author’s description of the priest. The story is about Jean Val Jean, not the priest!” I tried to explain that the story was much bigger than Jean Val Jean. I could see instantly that my co-worker’s perspective was much narrower than mine. I defended my love of the full book, carefully explaining that the book examines larger themes, such as the nature of law and grace, moral philosophy, justice, religion, and the nature of love—romantic and familial. Hugo examines these themes from the varying life experiences of all the characters of the book, not just from Jean Val Jean’s.  But my co-worker wasn’t buying it – he seemed to think I was taking something that was quite simple and pure and making it unnecessarily complex and grand.

We felt very differently about the book because of our different perspectives of what it was about. We had both read the book. All of it. And our experiences were different. For my coworker, certain characters and narratives seemed wholly unnecessary. These were frustrating to him – they diluted the story line. On the other hand, these same characters and narratives seemed essential to me because I saw them as part of a larger, universal story.

This difference in perspective, in my view, is analogous to what I often see in the leadership teams with which I work. One recent example is the global HR team of a rapidly growing organization. The team was struggling in part because they had different perspectives about the primary purpose of the global team and the relevance of each role on that team. Some shared a perspective that was centered around the HR function and how to overtly promote the importance of employees in the company’s vision, mission, and strategy. On the other side, some team members (including the team leader) saw the purpose of the team as HR business partners, who were empowered to build people initiatives into the fiber of every business decision without needing to call out a distinct people strategy.  Though a few team members adopted the leader’s perspective, many on the team were frustrated by it, frustrated because they thought their leadership story was about People as THE main character, while the team leader was trying to get them to see People as just one of a whole cast of characters integral to the overarching vision and mission of the organization, and every business strategy and objective.

To be successful, leadership teams must operate with shared meaning and purpose, wholeheartedly supported by each team member. This alignment doesn’t mean team members have to squelch their point of view – in fact, it requires each to openly share his or her perspective.  Alignment on purpose is the outcome of shared meaning, which can only occur when disparate points of view are shared and appreciated.

In the situation with my coworker and our perspectives on Les Mis, I think we are both better off for having shared our views. While our different ways of interpreting the story are not part of our team’s work purpose, the process of sharing our perspectives helps us discover what we have in common, and our ability to respect disparate points of view bodes well for us working together toward our shared purpose of serving internal and external stakeholders with great care. Both the priest and Jean Val Jean would be proud.

Perception is Other People's Reality

360-Degree Feedback Self Awareness

I was talking to a friend of mine who works as an analyst for a data analytics firm. He is a quiet, intelligent, hard working professional from Mexico City.  He talked about how different the business culture is here in the United States. He explained that in Mexico City, if you work hard, your efforts are recognized and rewarded. In contrast, he says that in the U.S., you need to tell people all the time about yourself—what you know, and how capable you are.

His assessment caused me to pause and reflect on my own experience and the times when I believe my hard work was rewarded without me having to tell my story about it. On the other hand, I have also had exactly the kind of experience he talked about when I simply had to tell others about my effort and the impact it had. And, frankly, I do believe that in order to win the opportunities you want and have a positive impact in your organization, you must proactively influence the perceptions others have about you.
Marketing experts understand that perception is reality. Likewise in business, what others perceive about you is their reality about you—whether or not those perceptions are technically accurate.

Your supervisor, peers, direct reports, and other co-workers already have perceptions about you, and they make decisions based on those perceptions. The question is, what are these perceptions? Are they good? Bad? Accurate? Not? Whatever they are, to influence and perhaps change them, you must first be aware of what they are. I have found the 360-degree feedback process to be an effective way to help you do just that.

I work daily with individual leaders as well as executive teams from all over the world, using the 360-degree feedback process to help them become more fully aware of the perceptions others have about them. The feedback the leaders receive helps them become more aware of the impact of their behaviors and perceptions of personal professional competency.

The 360 process, coupled with effective coaching, helps leaders see more clearly what has brought them success as well as what skills they can develop or work on to become more effective. They become aware of blind spots and areas that, if left unchecked, could overshadow even the good things they are doing and possibly derail career progression.

With heightened self-awareness and appropriate coaching, the leader learns how to create appropriate actions from the feedback, work more effectively with others, and contribute more significantly to the goals of the organization. In short, they proactively manage their own behaviors as well as other’s perceptions, which allows them to more positively impact business results and how those are achieved. Everybody wins.

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Do Bonuses Engage Employees?

Bonuses come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, flavors, and amounts.  Some companies offer regular performance bonuses, including the elusive on-the-spot bonus when the big boss walks by; other companies have a structured, period-based bonus program: did we hit our targets for Q1?  Excellent—everyone benefits; still other companies dole out bonuses once the holidays arrive (perhaps to meet perceived pressures of expectation).

That’s great and all, but not all of these bonuses engage—and those that do create quickly fleeting levels of engagement.  What gives?

Our conversation needs to go back to the discussion of the differences between satisfaction and engagement—the former being comprised of elements like compensation (both regular and bonus); the latter, of elements that directly impact levels of meaning, autonomy, growth, impact, and connection. 

According to Lalin Anik and Jordi Quoidbach, “Individual rewards . . . have been shown to be detrimental to employee morale and productivity.”  Roughly translated, that means if my boss decides to give me a bonus because I’ve worked hard, he should expect my performance to decrease.  I’m not sure I agree with that premise (if I did, I’m not sure I would want my boss to know).

Anik and Quoidbach proceed to promote a different kind of bonus program: “provide [employees] the same bonuses with one caveat: they must be spent on prosocial actions towards charities and coworkers.”  That’s a nice thought and all, but subjecting all bonuses to said caveat is a recipe for disaster.  Enter Frederick Herzberg.

Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory introduces a set of hygiene factors like job security, compensation (read: bonuses), working conditions, and status, none of which provide positive long-term satisfaction, though the absence of any yields dissatisfaction.  By converting the company’s once-selfish bonus program into a prosocial campaign, you can bet employees will passively rebel.  Removing a familiar bonus program (turned hygiene factor) will sharply increase levels of employee dissatisfaction.  Since satisfaction and its contributing factors comprise the necessary foundation for employee engagement, matters will only get worse.

Instead of doing away with all individualized bonuses, consider creating a hybrid program: individual performance-based bonuses and prosocial initiatives.  Anik and Quoidbach’s research quantifies the ROI of prosocial bonus programs: “on sales teams, for every $10 spent prosocially, the firm gained $52.”  At DecisionWise we recently held a prosocial on-the-spot bonus program called Amazing Acclaims.  Each week, we each received five bonus tokens, which we were encouraged to give to colleagues when we caught them doing great things.

The program became an easy way for us to recognize each other and express gratitude for hard work.  In addition to creating a social recognition program amongst colleagues, the program also helped us interact with and get to know other employees with whom we didn’t regularly work.  The result?  Engaged employees who rewarded and recognized other engaged teammates for their efforts—a continual cycle, if you will.  In addition, DecisionWise encourages employees to support worthwhile charitable causes by contributing to organizations of their (the employees’) choosing.

Though I can’t say Amazing Acclaims or corporate giving had a 500-percent ROI impact on revenue, they certainly did improve levels of engagement, which gets us back to where we started this conversation.
Though traditional bonuses don’t necessarily engage, they do create a foundation upon which engagement can flourish.  Additionally, they serve as positive recognition for joint contribution to success.

What kind of bonus programs does your company offer?  What are some other ways companies can make bonuses more engaging?  Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

6 Things to Consider Before Using 360 Feedback for Performance Appraisal

360-Degree Feedback Leadership Coaching

When it is performance appraisal time, many managers and HR leaders contemplate adding 360-degree feedback to the process.  We hear, “Wouldn’t it be great if we included feedback from peers, direct reports, and others to get a better picture of an individual’s overall performance?”  Yes! We won’t debate the continual argument of whether organizations should use 360s for appraisal.  But, beware.  360-Degree Feedback Leadership CoachingBelow are just a few of the items to consider when determining if your organization is ready to use 360 feedback for performance appraisal:

  1. 360-degree feedback is an add-on.  A 360 survey is good for measuring competencies, not operational metrics.  Measurable competencies include areas like communication, innovation, and decision-making.  It may not be a good tool for peers or direct reports to evaluate whether the individual accomplished KPIs or other business metrics.  The manager may be the only person able to assess those areas; you will still need to use a separate form or set of questions to capture that information. Don’t think that you can kill two birds with one stone.
  2. Consider your culture.  If you have never used 360 surveys in your organization before and there is a low-trust environment, don’t start the 360 process with performance appraisals.  Instead, use 360 feedback for development with your senior leaders first, and then roll it out over a period of time until the culture is ready to use it with appraisals.
  3. Decide how to use the results.  Don’t tie the 360 score to the evaluation during the first year! Instead, include the goals from the resultant action plan as part of the performance appraisal for the next year.  This way, you are evaluating the completion of the goals, as opposed to a change in scores.  Over time, the scores can be incorporated as part of the overall appraisal score.  Remember, 360 appraisal results compliment the review, but do not a replace the current process.
  4. It will take more time. Because you will gather feedback from multiple people, each employee could take up to 10 surveys each.  You also need to budget time to decide who will provide feedback to whom.  To make the process more efficient, use a short survey (20-35 items) and restrict the number of raters for each person to five to ten.  The downside is that you will reduce the number of questions and raters a developmental 360 typically provides.
  5. You will spend more.  This is not a cheap replacement for your evaluation process (and software system).  You will need to purchase a good software tool or partner with a 360 survey provider.  If you use a do-it-yourself software tool, be prepared to spend much more time on the entire process.  Service providers run the entire process for you and save you valuable time, while increasing confidentiality and accuracy.
  6. Train your managers. How do you plan to teach people about the 360 process and provide performance-related feedback?  What happens after someone receives their 360 feedback results is the most important part of the process. Managers will need to know how to interpret the results and coach their employees to create a personal development plan.

Bottom line: If you are only looking to simplify the performance appraisal process and save money, then 360 feedback is not the answer.  But is it worth it? It certainly can be, if done correctly. Organizations that implement 360-degree feedback as part of their performance appraisal process report higher levels of completion, fairer evaluations, increased accountability, more personal growth, and a more open corporate culture.
If you have used 360 feedback for performance appraisal, what has been your experience?  What other advice would you give?
360-degree feedback survey
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Why Perks Don’t Result in Employee Engagement

Perks of a modern work space

Perks are becoming more popular because of high-profile examples in Silicon Valley, where perks have been taken to the extreme.  Foosball tables, free lunch, phone stipends, and frequent flyer miles are so-five-years-ago amenities that have largely become expectations rather than a bonus.  I attended the holiday party for a division of Apple last year, and they gave all employees in the division an iPad mini.  Merry Christmas, indeed!  But beyond iPads and game rooms, companies have engaged in a “perks arms race” by offering to take care of your daily life needs:

  • Google will feed you all meals, do your laundry, and even run your errands via Google Shopping Express.
  • Beyond food, Twitter will also valet park your car when you arrive at the office, provide a Caltrain pass, or give you the option to meet at a designated company shuttle stop.
  • Facebook is building a 394-unit apartment complex located two miles from its headquarters, which will feature a gym, pool, pet spa, coffee shop, sports bar, and more.

Perks are good for recruiting and retaining—at least initially.  All of these benefits look extremely attractive, especially to the new college graduate looking for an easy transition from school to work—and bragging rights.
After working in HR for several years at multiple Silicon Valley companies, I can’t even begin to count the number of times I heard the phrase, “But he got an offer from Google/Facebook/Apple.  How can we compete with that?”  Beyond the stock grants, companies are trying to keep up with the free food, the bring-your-dog-to-work policies, the onsite dentists and oil changes. The list goes on, and companies are becoming increasingly creative with the perks they offer.

Sounds like a pretty great life, right?  Everything you ever need can be taken care of by your company.
The problem is the high cost for this type of care—your entire life.  This goes beyond the old days of “Crackberry” syndrome.  You’re expected not only to respond to emails at any hour of the day or night, but also to spend longer hours at the office.  From the company’s perspective, why would you possibly need to leave?  The company did your laundry, fed you three gourmet meals and snacks all day long, picked up those errand items from Target, gave you time to work out at the on-site gym, and even styled your hair.  And now you owe them your discretionary effort.

A friend of mine worked for one of these “high-perk” Silicon Valley companies.  At first the novelty was exciting: all-you-can-eat delicious food, no more trips to the dry cleaner or laundromat, running into famous people on campus at least once a week—quite the life.  And then the work honeymoon ended.  He found out that the internal systems were a disaster, which created hours upon hours of extra work for him each week.  Since he wasn’t an engineer, he found that the company didn’t value his particular function and expertise because in Silicon Valley, engineering is king.  He began working longer and longer hours, arriving home between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. every evening, only to get back on his laptop and keep working another two or three hours each night.  After 18 months at the company, multiple medical visits to deal with stress-related health problems, and many sleepless nights, he decided that the perks weren’t worth the cost and announced that he was leaving.  I was surprised to hear that someone would leave this seemingly prestigious, growing, hot company.  When I asked him why he was leaving, he didn’t say anything about better perks, more money, or hefty stock grants at another company.  In fact, he doesn’t even have another job lined up yet.  The real reason he left?  Management and leadership.

Perks alone are not enough to result in employee engagement.  They can keep employees satisfied, but they can’t engage hearts, hands, and minds to give discretionary effort. So instead of getting caught up in the perks arms race, focus on creating an environment rich with opportunities for growth, showing individuals how they have an impact, and helping employees understand the meaning in their job. These efforts will lead to real employee engagement and have a lasting effect on retention and productivity.
Employee Engagement Survey Sample Download
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