How To Decide on the Best Plan of Action Based on Your Employee Survey Results
Action planning is always a good idea. But that doesn’t mean that every action plan is a good one. An organization can create all the awareness in the world, but much like my bathroom scale reminds me every morning, awareness can only accomplish so much. To develop a clear path toward effective behavioral change, an action plan must be grounded in a correct understanding of what’s really going on behind the scenes.
A few years back, a well-known national brand came to us. They had several well-publicized difficulties and wanted to do an employee engagement survey to get a feel for how those difficulties were affecting employees. As expected, their results came in below average. But what no one saw coming was a record-setting low in how negatively people responded to one of their survey items about opportunities for training and development. It was quite literally the lowest score we had ever seen for any survey item on any engagement survey. Something needed to change, and fast.
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The way forward for this organization seemed as clear as a yellow-brick road. Consulting is easy when the answers are spelled out so brightly. Running the stats was a mere formality at this point. Until it wasn’t. According to our driver analysis, this gaping wound of a question was NOT a driver of engagement. Upon closer examination, the main driver was actually something hiding in the 40th percentile of questions, i.e. an item that was in the low range, but not so low that anyone gave it much thought. With that knowledge, we had to convince the clients to pay no attention to the giant, floating, record-setting, green head, but rather to the unassuming old man behind the curtain. And to their credit, they listened.
Every engagement campaign has two major decisions. First, should we even do the survey (this one’s easy – 90% of the time the correct decision is yes). The second is the “now what?” We have results; but what do they really mean, and what do we do with them? Think of how an optometrist flips through a series of lenses until what you’re looking at stops being hazy and comes into clear focus. A clear action plan is easily discovered by filtering the data through the three lenses of action planning.
Lens 1 – Statistical analysis
The first and most important step in developing an employee engagement survey action plan is determining which levers to pull to create the greatest impact on employee engagement. This can be accomplished in several ways, each with increasing degrees of efficacy – good, better, and best.
Good: Statistical significance. This is the most basic statistical test you can run and really the bare minimum you should be doing with your results. It simply checks the average of your data against another average (e.g. your previous data or an industry benchmark) and checks to see if the difference is likely real or simply due to chance. But the problem is that is all it tells you. It doesn’t indicate if that’s the best place to prioritize your efforts.
Better: Correlation is definitely an improvement upon significance testing. Which items go up as engagement goes up? When do they go down in unison? The value here is obvious. But you run the risk of spurious correlation (among other things). A helpful example I use when teaching statistics is that the more churches there are in a town, the more drunk driving incidents occur. But it turns out the relationship is spurious because it can be explained by a third variable: the population of a town. Thus, the real finding is that the more people you have in an area, the more likely it is to see a rise in both churches and DUIs. So, while the correlation lens is helpful and certainly provides direction, it also carries the potential for misdirection.
Best: Your best employee engagement strategy is conducting a driver analysis (multiple regression). This is like a correlation on steroids. It combs through and strips away all the spurious correlations, leaving you with a handful of items that best predict engagement. Using this lens provides the clearest, most reliable path forward. But these employee engagement statistics are only the first step.
Lens 2 – Lowest scores
So why, if you’ve already discovered the best predictors of engagement, do you need to go any further? You don’t…if your only goal is addressing employee engagement directly. But try putting yourself in the mindset of an employee as you deliver the following news: “We see that you scored top-down communication as something we are terrible at. But we decided to ignore that in favor of something our statistician says is more significant.” Would this make you feel listened to? Valued? Or conversely, would it make you feel like the survey was a complete waste of your time? Maybe you would even see it as a violation of your expectation to be heard. The high and low scores are the strongest messages your employees send to you. If you don’t acknowledge them, you are adding an unnecessary degree of difficulty to rolling out your engagement strategy or campaign, and worse, you may not even get the chance to roll it out because you will have lost any good faith before you begin.
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As I’ve already mentioned, your first step is using the lens of statistical data to identify your action plan. Your second step must be getting employees to trust in that plan. Making an effort to address low scores is an effective way to foster trust. When you announce changes and initiatives that are coming from the survey results, use the second lens of low scores to focus your communication efforts.
Lens 3 – Your intuition
As uncomfortable as it may make you feel, a paper checklist is far better at diagnosing illness than your doctor is. The humble checklist has outperformed doctors since we started studying this back in the early 70’s. But doctors provide a great value when the checklist reaches a conclusion and the doctor uses intuition as a comprehensive control check. Similarly, any conclusion reached by looking through the first two lenses needs one last check for common sense. Maybe there is a problem with senior leadership but a retirement is imminent. Or maybe office space is inadequate but plans are already in place for a new building. And, returning to our original case study, maybe that glaring, rock-bottom score is upstaging the actual driving factor.
It was this third and final lens of intuition that gave our client the confidence to focus heavily on drivers. Using the second lens of lowest scores, they acknowledged how bad that one survey item was and explained how market forces were preventing them from addressing it that year but that they’d invest heavily in other areas designed to improve engagement (for them, improved communication and a better connection to the organizational culture). Their validation of the employees’ voice earned them the trust they needed to implement their engagement campaign.
At survey time the next year, employee engagement had increased dramatically (our most improved client of the year). And it wasn’t just engagement that improved. Typically, I tell clients if an item goes up 7% they should throw a party. That abnormally low survey item, the one we convinced them to barely work on? It went up almost 250%! Engagement is the rising tide that lifts all boats, i.e., when you love your job, you can overlook its imperfections more easily. And using these three lenses of action planning is the most effective way to create the most effective employee engagement action plan.