Picture this: You’re a leader and you just received your employee attitude survey back. You scan through the results and your heart sinks — all you see are sad faces, negative slopes, dropped scores and red, lots of red. All you want to do is turn things around, but where do you start?
Putting in a call to the human resources department seems to make sense, except for one thing: The vast majority of HR leaders will suggest you do a focus group. They will tell you that you need to get below the surface to find out what’s at the root of employee concerns. The logic behind the focus group seems rational, but a focus group may be risky. Your gut is telling you that you need to do something different, something more.
Here’s why a focus group may not be the best approach. More often than not, focus groups provide an outlet for negative people to speak up, and if these people are also very frustrated, to vent. The facilitator is then tasked with managing the room, promoting constructive dialogue and shutting down venters. This can be a very difficult task and can make the facilitator appear like they don’t care about hearing from employees, in which case, they let the individual vent and the energy in the room does a nosedive. The rest of the participants, many of whom are neutral or positive, are left wondering if they missed something or if they should also somehow be unhappy. Instead of bringing a bunch of staff into a room to vent their complaints (or to remain silent given that anonymity is out of the equation), I suggest an alternative approach.
1. Consider all the possible issues. Did you recently let someone go who everyone loved? Are people feeling overworked? Was compensation just changed? Most often, there are a few causes for the “sea of red,” not just one. Ask a few of your most trusted senior leaders, staff or peers who know your team and who will share their opinions candidly and in a balanced way.
2. Craft a smaller, more targeted survey. Employee surveys, like the one I mentioned earlier, can be great tools. They allow leaders to have a pulse on how employees are feeling at a broad level, and they highlight issues so that those issues can be dealt with. Surveys can also highlight what senior leadership or the organization is doing well so that it can be replicated and continued.
That being said, attitude surveys only signal problems; they are not usually detailed enough to fully diagnose the problem. When survey results are all red (which happens more than people would like), leaders have an awareness that their team is sending them a message, but they don’t always know what the full message is. I would suggest creating a second, mini-survey to build on those results and go deeper into the biggest problem areas that came out of the attitude survey.
3. Think about who you want to interview in-depth to get to the root causes. Work with HR and hire an expert to review the survey, refine the interview list, create some structured questions and conduct the interviews. An external resource is important, as an expert can add credibility and structure, demonstrate your commitment to improvement and allow your people to trust in the process.
4. Dig into the results and create a plan. There will be some feedback for you as the leader and likely for lots of other people, including HR. There may also be both toxic and influential people in your group. That is important to know. If there are toxic players, they need to be addressed before moving forward with other steps. How that is dealt with will depend on each situation. If you have a leadership team, have the expert help you facilitate a meeting and build the response plan with the team. Give everyone a role to play in helping turn morale around. Work together to create a presentation and/or communication plan that can be relayed to the entire team, including all staff.
5. Once the plan is in place, you are ready to involve the staff group. The goal here is threefold: Present the results of the interviews; discuss your plan of action; enlist help from all staff. Everyone will need to feel they have a role in order for things to move forward in a positive direction. Get feedback from staff on the plan created by the leaders and work with staff to talk about what they can do on their own teams and as individuals to contribute to change. Communicate the message that if everyone is involved, change will happen more quickly and will be more sustainable.
Poor morale is not always just the leader’s fault. Negative employee survey results can seem like a leadership failure, but to view these instead as a signal makes it easier to take action. The steps outlined above are a tried and true process I have used with multiple clients. It works, but it takes work. Leaders must be willing to invest the time, to be open and to be courageous. Doing so can result in successfully getting to the root of complex morale issues and making positive, sustainable change.