4 Principles for Learning What Your Employees Really Think About Work

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While soliciting employee feedback can build trust and drive performance, gathering feedback and not acting on it does more harm than good.

Employee engagement is a topic that has been explored in great depth in HR and management literature, but truly understanding your people and responding effectively to what you learn is easier said than done. Here are four less-than-obvious principles to help leaders gauge and grow employee engagement:

1. Apply Minimum Viable Effort When Starting an Engagement Program

In Silicon Valley, we talk about minimum viable products, or MVPs, a lot. An MVP is the most simplified version of a product that fills the customer’s need, often used for testing and iterating. In the case of employee engagement, we should consider the minimum viable effort, or MVE.

When launching an employee engagement program, ask yourself: What is the minimum amount of effort (i.e., time and resources) that my team and I can spend on this to hit our goals? When starting out, it’s better to execute a small but reliable and thoughtful program than to design and roll out something elaborate. Complete is better than perfect. Elaborate ideas can snowball into projects that are too big or distracting for your team, and often they are not repeatable. The right program scale will vary by size and stage of maturity of your company and of your team. You can always add more steps, resources, and analysis as you grow.

2. Be Flexible About How You Measure Employee Engagement

Depending on your company size and culture, you can measure employee engagement in multiple ways:

– Organically and personally through direct check-ins
– Quantitatively through surveys and polls
– Indirectly through existing data sets

Holly is head of people and operations at Datavant, a software company with 25 employees, most of whom work under one roof in San Francisco. At that size, an online survey or formal polling program may feel too cold and official, and it may not be sustainable for a lean people team to implement or manage. At this stage, Holly can track the pulse of the organization through hallway conversations and one-on-one check-ins. She has one-on-one meetings with everyone on the team, on a basis ranging from weekly to monthly. She frequently kicks off a conversation with, “What’s on your mind today?”, “How are you feeling about your work on the team?”, or “What can I do to support you?” Like a salesperson doing discovery through inquiry to understand a prospect, Holly’s approach is to ask open-ended questions to understand her colleagues’ feelings, feedback, and mindsets.

This kind of informal approach for tracking employee engagement works when you have strong rapport and trust with each person in the company. Clearly, it doesn’t scale, and it’s not anonymous. If a sampling of hallway chats and one-on-ones is used as a proxy for overall employee sentiment at a larger organization, the method will be subject to all the gremlins of bias.

Surveys are a more conventional and scalable method to assess employee engagement. At LiveRamp, Brandon and his team began using a quarterly survey when the team reached 350 employees. Products such as Culture Amp and Glint have fairly strong adoption across Silicon Valley, while other employers use homegrown platforms. The advantages of surveys are clear: They are scalable, uniform, and consistent. In our experience, the disadvantages must be managed thoughtfully, particularly survey fatigue, sampling bias, and question design. A host of new HR tech companies are finding ways to improve this with context-dependent questions based on data the company already has, like parental leave used or recent start dates.

Indirect or passive measurement is another option for assessing employee engagement. In this case, you don’t use an instrument but rather analyze existing data surrounding recruiting, attendance, performance, and/or pay. Some more sophisticated approaches use social listening or sentiment analysis in Slack messages and email. On one hand, the indirect approach is straightforward because it requires no additional tools or processes, and it can lead to unanticipated insights. However, the approach also requires considerable analytical savvy, and employees may find it invasive.

3. Place Ownership for Actions Carefully

Whatever method you use to measure employee engagement, there comes a moment where you and your leadership team review the findings and ask yourselves: Now what?

It is critical to understand the actions you plan to take and who will maintain ownership of these actions. Be thoughtful about where ownership lies for actions. Beware of pushing all actions onto the leadership team, which can diminish the voices of those closest to the topic at hand and eliminate a potential stretch opportunity for the front-line owner  — e.g., execs addressing sales training instead of the company’s head of sales enablement.

On the other hand, it is important for the company to see its senior leadership listening to company feedback and acting on it. We recommend executives take leadership of 1-3 problems that are uniquely theirs to solve and report on progress against them regularly.

In sum: If you ask for feedback, you need to either act on it or be very clear about why you’ve opted for inaction. Inaction on collected feedback can be toxic, especially if you don’t communicate to employees the reason for inaction. Inaction implies that you don’t care, and employees who feel their leaders don’t care are less likely to care about their own work in return.

4. Business Outcomes Matter More Than Survey Scores

According to the conventional wisdom, measuring employee engagement follows a cycle that goes like this: measure engagement and look at survey results, glean insights, and devise actions. Most frameworks ignore the crucial fourth step, track outcomes, which is ultimately the core reason employee engagement matters. Taking action (step three) is actually an input to a system. That system is your employee base, existing culture, and operating model. The outcomes are separate; the outcomes are the true test of whether the approach is working.

Many companies measure the impact of their actions by looking for positive gains on the measures within their engagement platforms. For example, maybe “I want to help the team collaborate better” received a score of 4.5 out of 5 in last quarter’s survey. The team does various things to address that, hoping to foster a collaborative spirit, and then the team checks for a change in the average or departmental scores for this same question in the next survey.

This approach is good, but flawed. The higher bar is tracking gains not only in the engagement scores, but also in the related business outcomes. In the collaboration example, you may have key performance indicators related to the team working well together, such as the percentage of cross-functional service level agreements met (or not met), the length of the sales cycle, and so on. Improvements in those outcomes are what you care most about, not a 4.5 vs. 4.8 score in a biannual survey.

Measuring employees’ sentiments about the companies where they work is unlikely to stop being critical anytime soon. The scale of the program you implement will vary and evolve. We encourage careful scoping, focusing on business outcomes over survey scores, and placing ownership for actions thoughtfully as a means to empower your team.

Brandon Sammut is head of people and culture at LiveRamp. Holly May is head of people and operations at Datavant.

By Brandon Sammut and Holly May