21 November 2012

Employee (Dis)engagement

Back when I was doing my research that led to the development of Valence Theory, I came across a curious phenomenon among two of my participants, both senior leaders – CEOs, in fact – of their respective companies. In many instances, they said nearly the same things but their intention and meaning were almost exactly polar opposites of each other. For example, both spoke about consultation and collaboration with employees, yet one’s intention was to impose his beliefs, worldview, and sense-making on employees who held dissenting opinions. The other leader consulted and collaborated – especially with those who held opposing views – to discover what she was missing in her own understanding of business situations. One leader was confident in what he knew to be “true.” The other, actively sought out to fill the gaps in what she didn’t know that she didn’t know. In McLuhan language, same figures with different grounds (contexts) yields different meaning; meaning being the interplay of figure against ground.

I’m reminded of this idea that we can construct very different meanings from a given observation depending on the ground or context against which the observation is interpreted. Take employee satisfaction surveys, for example. Every leader wants to believe that her or his employees are engaged, satisfied, willing to go the proverbial extra mile or kilometre, and would happily stay even if offered a somewhat better job elsewhere. Leaders want to score high when employees consider whether their company is a Great Place to Work. They survey employees regularly, solicit feedback from workers at every level, and herald high scores through self-congratulatory email blasts thanking staff for their great teamwork, support, dedication, and loyalty in the face of adversity and constant change. What could be wrong with that?

And indeed, all may be well in the state of the company. Equally – thinking back to the example of the two leaders saying the same thing from completely opposite intentions – all may not be as well as the survey results might suggest on the surface. Here are some telltale signs that great results in an employee satisfaction survey might be masquerading some serious, systemic problems:
  1. Response rate is low or delayed: Most such surveys require a minimum response rate from workers to be considered valid. Those sponsoring the survey monitor responses and strongly encourage managers to get their employees to respond, especially as the deadline draws closer. Generally speaking, people are more reluctant to share bad news and eager to provide good. A delayed response – a “hockey stick” shaped response graph – might indicate underlying dissatisfaction.
  2. Small granularity of samples: If response units are fewer than ten people, it’s often easy for a manager to figure out who are the naysayers (or non-responders); framed another way, those who are not “good team players.” In an environment in which employment safety with respect to reprisal, career limitation, or risk of firing is a concern – especially when there is a culture of “no bad news” (see below) – employees will give neutral to mildly positive responses rather than share their true feelings. It’s a tough job market out there!
  3. Functional favouritism: Especially in companies that favour one function over another – engineers and developers in a tech company, sales people, researchers in knowledge-based organizations – satisfaction results may be skewed by overwhelmingly high scores among those who enjoy privilege who also tend to dominate in numbers as well. When average-to-mediocre results are clustered in particular functional areas, there is useful information that management is missing.
  4. No bad news, a.k.a. Emperor’s new clothes: Employees quickly learn whether honest opinions – especially those that express disagreement with the senior leaders – are welcome or not. They learn whether dissenters experience reprisals via lack of promotion or salary raises, limited access to funding or opportunities, or whether they become members of madogiwazoku “the window ledge tribe” of people who are stripped of responsibility and forced to spend their days in triviality until they resign (assuming they can find alternative employment). In such environments, employees know that there is no percentage in telling the emperor s/he has no clothes. It’s much easier, not to mention safer, to tell him/her what she wants to hear.

Sadly these conditions and others create conditions in which leaders are unable to hear and observe what is really going on right under their noses: compliance rather than commitment, apathy instead of innovation, putting another one over on the boss as opposed to providing inspired guidance.

The bottom line: High employee satisfaction and engagement survey results are meaningless if they are not understood in the context of the real environment in which they are taken.