Why I’m in favour of employee engagement surveys

I, Sukhvinder Pabial, hereby declare that I am in favour of the annual employee engagement survey and herewith set out my reasons why. Please, be patient with me.

Ok first of all let me get out of the way some things:
– I agree that the annual survey route is ineffective because it’s too much of a gap and doesn’t take into account peaks and troughs, successes and failures as the year progresses
– for some it can be a very cynical process where nothing good happens anyway so why bother in the first place
– you are constrained by the questions you choose to go with. For consistency it’s hard to change them year on year for it to remain meaningful and comparable
– individuals may be high performing, great organisational citizens and highly engaged and still not care about completing the survey, so what happens to their input/data?
– nothing beats a conversation and that 1:1 feedback
– working on improving engagement scores doesn’t deal with the heart of issues or improve organisational performance
– why make a point of anonymity and confidentiality when surely the best way to engender and cultivate trust is by being open and transparent?
– there’s more cos you know, criticism and progressive thought

Right, so I am vested in the annual employee engagement survey process because I’m responsible for it. We’re into our third year of doing these formally and I’m learning loads from the whole thing.

I’ve learned that when you want a vehicle for change, an employee engagement survey helps provide that. I am less focused on improving scores for scores sake, and more interested in providing meaningful solutions that become business as normal.

I’ve learned that when you decide to spend resource and energy in doing something, it’s just as important to share progress as it is to communicate outcomes, even where there may be nothing that impacts you at all. People care an awful lot of knowing what’s happening, and if you don’t help them know, they create their own narrative. The important piece is to understand that narrative and where it makes sense to correct it.

I’ve learned that the data start to tell a story and it’s important to have an open and honest dialogue about that. Some leaders are willing to also engage in open dialogue reflecting on their own leadership and what they can do to improve things. Others feel they can’t act without approval and permission. And others are cynical about the survey and data in the first place so aren’t interested to act anyway. And then, of course, you have the people who just don’t care and only doing things because they have to.

I’ve learned that if you ask open questions about the data, you get some great responses and insight. The data can’t do that by itself, and I’m only one man. I can be smart about what plans we could create, but what makes me more smart and the plans even better is when co-creation happens.

I’ve learned that sometimes a well thought out idea just doesn’t fly. You can make that link about why it’s good in your head, and can convince others that it’s a useful thing to do, but it just doesn’t fly. That’s ok, because it’s always hard to know if an idea actually has legs until you try it. I learn and I’ll evolve the idea.

I’ve learned that some improvements require systemic change. That means fundamentally looking at, analysing and understanding processes, leadership and culture. More on that as it emerges.

Organisational life is full of interesting things that happen. Some we control better than others. Some we didn’t know were in play. Some we didn’t know were being hidden. Some are easy to resolve and some are too hard to even define.

As with all organisational activity, you should only do those things that make a difference and add value. Once they become a thing unto itself for the sake of doing it, we can forget why they were useful in the first place. I’m in favour of the annual employee engagement survey process because I see how it’s helping us develop as an organisation. The hard conversation comes when we end up doing it for no other reason than “it’s what we’ve always done”.

What is Positive Psychology?

It’s often the first question I get asked when I talk about the topic. Actually in truth it’s the first question I often ask people who want to know. Mostly people guess it’s something to do with positive thinking. Some, who have read better on the topic, tell me it’s about wellbeing and focusing on strengths. I care less about right answers and am more interested in people’s perceptions so I know how to adapt what I’m about to talk about.

Positive psychology is the scientific study of wellbeing, resilience and thriving. That is, it is a field of psychology which is focused on helping us better understand what can help us live a life where we feel more positive in general, how we can adopt practices that increase our ability to deal with challenging times, and how we can carry out regular activities that help us feel vibrant.

When Martin Seligman became president of the American Psychological Association several years ago, he brought insight and his own research into positive psychology to the forefront of discussion. He argued that in essence, all psychological fields are positive in their nature. All interventions and therapies are designed to improve the wellbeing and resilience of people. But not all were designed to aid thriving, and in many replicated studies, we find there are people who face and have faced the starkest of moments and yet not only do they survive, but they thrive. Seligman argued that this is an area we don’t understand well enough and that we should focus energy and resource into understanding this better so that we can share those learnings more widely and increase the capability of society and communities to be more resilient and to enable and cultivate thriving where possible.

There have been many other well respected and noted scholars who have made their contributions to the topic – Tal Ben Shahar, Barbara Ehrenreich, Barbara Fredrickson and Mihaly Csikszentmihaly to name a few. And with ongoing research and exploration of this field we are understanding more and more about what positive psychology can enable, and what it can’t.

Positive psychology is not about positive thinking. Positive thinking can be helpful to help people move passed events and can encourage day to day positive living by not focusing on the negative. However, significant life events and distressing events cannot be overcome by positive thinking alone. If you lose a book, or graze your knee from a fall, or have been asked to write a report at work, positive thinking can be fine. If, however, you are burgled, or you break your leg or you have been made redundant, positive thinking alone cannot make those things better.

Positive psychology doesn’t discount or dismiss reality. In fact it fundamentally deals with reality by supporting individuals to deal with their reality and where possible/relevant resolve issues. Only by doing this are we better able to understand the areas where we can focus on building strength and resilience.

Positive psychology is about building strength and resilience. By focusing on what is going well in our lives, what our personal strengths are and how we can be our best, we start to identify what activities we want to do more regularly, can do more regularly and are helpful to us personally as well as to others. It does not advocate in any way that we embark on behaviours which are harmful to ourselves or to others.

Too much of a focus on strengths can become detrimental because we end up neglecting other parts of our being which make us who we are as a complete person. We are not just our strengths. We are our weaknesses, our hate, our fear, our joy, our love. This is less about “all things in moderation” and more about finding optimal ways to maintain positive feeling and resilience.

Positive psychology can be used therapeutically and as part of intervention to support those suffering mental health issues. This does clearly require trained therapists in the techniques and or careful guidance on how to deal with challenging life issues or events. Be cautious about those claiming they can do everything by helping you focus on the positive. There be dragons in them parts.

Positive psychology actively encourages social activities as well as carrying out community activities that are giving in their nature. Acts of altruism and supporting others can be deeply heartening and create lots of naturally good energy that can be useful to others.

Positive psychology helps us identify regular and useful activities that when brought together aid longer feelings of positivity, better resilience and activities that can lead to us feeling like we’re thriving. I’ve only captured elements of what positive psychology is and how it can be helpful. This isn’t intended to be a catch all, more to help raise better understanding and awareness of what this field offers. Comments are very welcome as are any challenges and questions to clarify things further.

Emotion, at work

The human condition is a weird and wonderful thing. A brain with some of the most complex connections, chemicals, energies and all sorts helping our body function in ways which are perfectly logical when you understand the human system, and at the same time when something unusual happens it can discombobulate us totally and utterly. In most of what we do, we often take for granted that most of us are able bodied, able minded, and able just generally. We get on and do the things we want to do and need to do.

It’s very rare we look to understand our emotional health. We’ll take the time to understand physical health, some of us may need to take care of our mental health, most of us will try and manage our financial health, and many of us just remain oblivious to our emotional health. It’s just not something we discuss that well.

I don’t believe there’s a male/female thing at play. It’s down to several things at play:

What language do we use?

How do we help others understand that we’re experiencing something emotional and that it needs to be expressed and articulated? How do we learn the language of emotions to create better relationships? How do we learn how to share our emotional health so that others can better understand our thinking and frame of mind? What happens when we try to express and articulate our emotions but it comes out in unintended ways that have a negative effect and affect? How do we manage our emotional health when we feel that everything is either going well, is plodding along, or is falling down all around us?

Who do we discuss emotions with?

Most people might think they can talk to their partners about such things. That’s a sensible assumption, but one that needs care. Does your partner recognise your emotional health and how it can change? When it changes, do they know what that means and how to either support you or experience it with you? What about our friends? Siblings? Work colleagues? What do those different groups of people understand about our emotional health? Are you allowed to discuss it with them? What do they do that either supports you or allows them to experience it with you?

How acceptable is it to express emotion at work?

The workplace tends to be a place that people traditionally think of where the environment is such that you have to be professional and this equates to leaving your emotions at the entrance. Except, we are none of us able to do that. Our emotions are a fundamental part of our being. They can make us do rational and irrational things and often without us having any control over them.

Does your manager know what your emotional health is like? What about your work colleagues? What would happen if you were to share your emotional state? How might people respond to you? What kind of working environment might that create? Would you feel supported? Vulnerable? Exposed? Trusted? Appreciated?

What are emotions actually for?

Many of us know and understand that our emotions are part of what makes us human, and our expression of them is just another unique factor of being human. But do we understand what they’re actually for? I mean, everything about the human condition serves a purpose, so what purpose do our emotions serve us? Would it surprise you to learn that our emotions serve multiple purposes? Ranging from self-protection to relationship building to preparing the body for action to creating connections with others – our emotions are a fundamental essence of being human. Yet, most of us just give them a cursory acknowledgement of existence.

I personally find the topic incredibly fascinating. The insights that we’ve gained through empirical research, investigation and philosophy helps us understand so much more about how we can understand our emotions better, understand how to experience them, understand how to articulate them and understand how to work with our emotions and not control them. There’s an event on Thursday 9th June (2016)  which is going to help explore this topic, and I highly recommend it. (I don’t get a kickback for promoting it, just bonus universe points.)

L&D, Rhetoric and Perpetuating Myths

This post will be challenging to read. It will be a direct challenge to those in the profession who I respect and think are doing important work in advancing L&D. If you read this and think I’m referencing you and your mindset and attitude, then yes I probably am.

The L&D vanguard leading the light for the revolution of how people are learning at work at peddling dangerous myths that we need to carefully critically appraise. I’m part of that vanguard. I’m peddling those same myths and I’m guilty as charged.

Except I’ve not built my business model on whether or not people will buy what I have to offer on the fear of what is happening in the world of knowledge consumption, and I’m not invested in towing that particular party line.

I repeat, this is directly offensive to those who do make a business of this. They earn an honest living from doing so and are doing important work in this area to progress the understanding of workplace learning in a way we haven’t been privy to before.

Every single person who is claiming they are leading organisations where models such as 70:20:10, informal learning processes, social learning and the such like are telling you such a bag of lies I don’t even know where to begin.

Firstly, most of the people in this space are talking about nothing more than IT training. They’re most certainly not talking about coaching skills, leadership development, negotiation training, or any other high level skill set. There might be some organisations doing this and claiming they are. They might even be part of the big chip organisations many of us would be lead to believe have fully embraced these types of approaches.

But they haven’t. A population in their organisation have, and that’s not the same as everyone. It’s not having the kind of business impact many are claiming it does because most departments aren’t measuring that kind of activity. One group embracing the approach is not the same as everyone in the Finance function or Procurement team or A N Other being part of this type of organisational learning activity.

Indeed, most organisations where there isn’t an L&D or HR function couldn’t even explain how they do any of this activity, because they’re simply not doing it. They’re getting on with the day job. And before the vanguard start claiming that the ’70’ of the 70:20:10 is the day job – yes I understand that, and it’s all being done on the job – except the people doing the job aren’t setting themselves personal learning tasks and embarking on personal and professional learning journeys. They’re just getting on with the job they’re paid for and at best doing a good job of it because of the formal learning processes they’re taking advantage of.

There’s more, though. The rhetoric around a lot of what the vanguard write about is that if you’re not supporting these activities as an L&Der then you’re failing your organisation. Which is in part true, except there are plenty of organisations and L&Ders who haven’t got the first clue about what any of this is trying to promote or talk about. So, no, not all big badass companies are doing this. Some companies are – those who are enlightened enough to realise there are better ways to support workplace learning and support personal and professional development at work. One team or a number of teams in an organisation does not equal endemic practice.

Hold on, there’s more too. In all likelihood, it’s those people who have a propensity towards using social tools and sharing their learning openly who are receptive to this type of learning at work. That’s not everyone, and it’s definitely not every L&Der. L&D is representative of the population at large in that there are just as many against the use of technology to support learning as there are business leaders who are against the use of technology to modernise workplace practice. The teams or the people likely to adopt this type of approach are those who want to modernise their working practice anyway.

I haven’t finished yet, there’s even more. The vanguard are very clear on this too. EVERYONE IS AT IT. Except they are patently not. Some are, sure. But there are many more who need support and guidance on how to make this stuff work and how to make it happen.

Let me be clear, I believe that workplace learning is fundamentally changing. Technology as an enabler of learning has never been better, and we’re only just seeing how the technology can be used as such. The vanguard are trying to run their business off a culture of fear in some parts where they’re claiming that there is this enigma of learning is taking place that is hard to quantify and hard to qualify but it’s out there because their surveys say so.

Let’s be careful about what we choose to believe. And to the vanguard I challenge every one of you to be far more responsible about the rhetoric that is perpetuated and the impact on your fellow L&Ders.

The morality question

Back in 2000, I passed my undergraduate degree. It was a good moment. I’ve written before that throughout my education I was never a student who got high marks. I was often the student who got the ‘C’ grade. My degree class was ‘2:2’ which means it was the equivalent of a ‘C’ grade for degrees. In the rankings of degree classifications it came:

  • 1st – first class honours
  • 2:1 – second class honours, upper division
  • 2:2 – second class honours, lower division
  • 3rd – third class honours
  • Ordinary degree – pass
  • Fail

I remember receiving my degree certificate, and it stated I had received the degree class ‘2:1’ – second class honours, upper division. Now, to place this in some context, at that time, getting a decent job with a good salary in a good company kind of meant you had to have a 2:1 degree. It was completely to my advantage that my degree certificate stated what it did.

Except, I couldn’t personally accept it. Morally, it was the wrong thing to accept. So I got in touch with my tutor and explained what I had received and that I wanted it amended to reflect my actual achievement. To say the least, he was surprised at this. He passed me on to the relevant team at the university and I got in touch with them about the same. Again they were surprised – most students got in touch with them because they were contesting their results and had managed to get a higher class degree, and here was me asking for it to be reduced. Madness!

At that stage in my life – pre-work, I was a deeply moral person. There was a right and wrong to most things. This, for me, clearly fell in the wrong camp which needed to be righted. As I entered the corporate workforce a few years later, I learned that my definition of my morals needed to be challenged and developed. Many matters were simply not right and wrong as I once thought. All shades of grey became apparent and as much as I was learning about corporate existence, I was learning about moral development too.

I learned that in the workplace, our morals can be pulled in all sorts of directions. The employment contract can be so strong, for many people, that it overrides your normal tolerance for what you would do. Milgram, in his famous experiment about electric shocks, proved this back in the 1960s. When faced with a figure of authority, people will defer their own judgement to that of the other person, because that’s what they believe is expected of them.

In recent years we’ve seen various high profile events happen where the morality of individuals and leaders has come into question as well as the culture of organisations and the impact of their actions on society at large. One of the clear pieces of insight that most commentators have talked about is the moral character – or lack of.

And you have companies like Best Companies (organisers of the Times 100 Best Companies list) who highlight and report on the importance of moral development of leaders and the impact this has on engagement in organisations.

It’s all actually quite complex stuff. If a leader says the right things, but behaves in ways which are morally questionable, who is able to stand up to them? How do we cultivate a culture in organisations where acting morally is rewarded and recognised for doing so? If you’re faced with a decision which may be morally corrupt questionable, how do you decide which course of action to take? If there is one individual who is behaving in ways which are morally wrong but they deliver results, who is responsible for addressing this type of performance?

I don’t think there are easy answers to this stuff. It’s why governing bodies / monitoring agencies / regulatory bodies and the such like face such challenges. The route many go down is by defining a set of standards which all companies/organisations should be measured/evaluated against. Except, people find ways around things like this. It’s why organisations and companies who create values for their companies have a hard time enforcing them. They’re often understood by a select group of people and often not articulated well enough for everyone to be in agreement with or abide by.

And I don’t think it’s just the responsibility of HR/L&D/OD types to lead on this stuff. This group of people are no more moral than any other group, and there should be no expectation that they should be. Morality is a human question. Developing moral capacity and capability is an organisational issue and not one that one person or department can claim authority about.

Just things to think about.

On Skiing

I lose myself as I glide along the snow. I’m warm from being wrapped up, aware of the cold as it presses against my skin. There’s just the snow. The white of it so pure and such a sight. The mountains in view present such majesty and awe. And at once I become conscious that I need to turn and my knees jerk.

Skiing, for me, rejuvenates me through, deeply. It touches parts of my being that I don’t know I need to be caressed. In another world I call this my third place – where I can just be, free from anything and everything. All that I need to think on is how to get down the slope.

It is such an alien affair. How did humans devise such an activity? To put these long flat sticks on these heavy boots and ski down a mountain of varying degrees of difficulty. And it’s a sport. And it’s a thriving sporting activity. And people of all ability go back year on year. Some even stay at resorts for the season just so they can ski regularly. Others ski for just an afternoon. Most spend a week. All are there to find out what it’s all about.

And the engineering! They create these cable cars that are quite frankly the scariest forms of transport I’ve ever travelled in yet are the most trustworthy of things you could travel in.

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Such a mind developed the intricate mechanisms that won’t fail and will be safe. How you even conceive of an idea like this I don’t even know. And it’s not just cable cars.  There are gondolas, chair lifts and all sorts of other ways to get up a mountain only to ski back down it again. Sure, bridges are pretty cool, but to build a cable car that is at the top of a mountain so sturdy that it can operate in sub zero temperatures?  That’s kind of just amazing.

But those views. By God those views.

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As you go higher up the mountain and the air becomes crisp and the sky so clear all you can do is bask, that’s when you believe this could be somewhere the gods choose to live. The gentle breeze that lofts an air of snow and gently moves it along the piste. The distance you can just gaze and get lost. And wonder, just why are people fighting?

I’d often be on the chair lift and just marvel. Oh the fortune of being able to do that. And of course get a pic taken of what it’s about.

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And I’d look down the slope and think, come on then, let’s do this thing.

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Understanding Evidence Based Management better

I’ve been hearing and reading a fair amount about this concept of evidence based practise for a while now. You are most likely familiar with the idea when it comes to medicine or government policy. Most medicine and policy decisions are informed by the evidence base. If a particular medicine proves to treat certain illnesses in clinical trials then it’s more than likely going to be made available to the public en masse. You can take that same approach and apply it to behavioural science and even further with areas like HR.

One of the areas of L&D where we’ve seen evidence based practise used effectively is in the study of ‘learning styles’ and their use in training / education design. What the research has proven time and again is that using learning styles as a design methodology for training / education is flawed at best and completely ineffective as a delivery methodology. Which is great because it forces us as L&Ders to really ensure we understand human  learning processes and design learning interventions that are in line with natural processes rather than discredited and useless theories.

Another area where we can see evidence based practise in, er, practise is online retail and online learning environments. Research is able to inform with amazing clarity and accuracy which forms of design / UX and UI are effective and which are not.

So step in the applicability of evidence based practise to the wider world of HR / L&D and we start to understand that we could use this practise to inform interventions that are actually effective.

From what I’ve understood about Evidence Based Management so far is that it relies on research and evidence to inform exactly what is effective and what is not. Right, that makes complete sense to me. So, for example, we are able to know that NLP, MBTI, learning styles, employee engagement initiatives, learning and development all have weak evidence bases. Now, before my fellow L&Ders get all defensive about this, it is well worth you taking your time to understand why they have a weak evidence base.

What this means in the broader Evidence Based Management piece is if Consultant A suggests Intervention A, then they should be doing so with a decent evidence base that Intervention A will work. Now there’s a whole piece there about the education of HR / L&D professionals better understanding what to look and ask for when it comes to that evidence base. But I need to keep this moving along.

So far, I’m in agreement with the approach, what it can inform us, and what that means for the interventions we choose to implement.

Where I come unstuck is when Evidence Based Management approach can’t provide an answer for a solution that is effective. What do I mean? I mean this:

Company A what’s to implement Intervention A, but the evidence base for it is either weak or non-existent.  They learn that Company B had a similar issue, and used Intervention B which had a positive organisational impact. Company A decide to go for using Intervention B. However, and this is a big however, Intervention B could only have worked for Company B because the culture and many other factors were aligned for that intervention to have worked. The research and evidence base may suggest it is effective, but that’s because the context of Company B helped make it work.

No two companies are the same. I know that Evidence Based Management doesn’t suggest blindly following examples and blindly following best practise solutions. What it doesn’t help with, though, is in offering solutions that can be effective.

Taking this further, what I’ve seen so far is Evidence Based Management help us understand what doesn’t work. That is really helpful and like I said, forces us as professionals and practitioners to examine what we’re doing and why. What I haven’t seen with this approach, yet, are models and theories that are effective that can work independent of culture and other organisational factors. The promise of Evidence Based Management is that it can potentially offer solutions that akin to medicinal solutions. I’m yet to see that in evidence.