Archives for posts with tag: organisational culture

There are few things more disheartening and annoying than being ignored. 

Imagine, dear reader, you are in a conversation. You are holding forth, with passion and wit, making a well-reasoned and succinct point, on the influence of the German expressionists on 1930s Hollywood, or your preferred campsites in the Lake District, for example.

You look across to your conversational partner, and see them yawning and drawing a picture of a mouse in clogs on the edge of a newspaper they a holding.

“What do you think?” you ask, only to be met with a vacant stare and a mumbled “sorry, what?”

How do you feel? Angry? Upset? Bitter? Do you feel like carrying on with that conversation? I’m guessing not.

And would you be the other person? Are you in the habit of ignoring people who are talking with you? Of course not, you are a reasonable and civilised human being, and understand your role in the social contract which surrounds the conversation. You talk, and listen, in order to get some benefit from the conversation.

If you are a leader or manager in an organisation, however, there is a very real chance you  do the equivalent of doodling a mouse with clogs on repeatedly during conversations.

How? Well, if your organisation has an employee survey and you do nothing with the results, then you are doodling said mouse on a newspaper in front of everyone who completed that survey.

Because a survey is a great example of giving employees a voice, a fundamental driver of engagement. By sending it out, you are, whether you like it or not, striking up a conversation. You are asking people what they think. If you asked an individual standing in front of you what they think, you wouldn’t ignore them, would you? Neither should you when you send out a survey.

I’ve blogged previously on the importance of not only doing things in response to surveys, but also telling people what you have done, and reminding them why you did it, so I’ll just remind you that this is really, really important and have a think about other ways of giving employees a voice.

For me, the most important way for an employee to use their voice is in their conversations with their line manager. The best conversations I’ve had with managers have always been about my development and how to do things differently, rather than what I’ve done.

This would start with the objective-setting conversation, where 15 minutes would be spent agreeing what needed to be done, and the rest of the time discussing what I needed to do to be able to deliver them, what new skills, capabilities or behaviours I needed.

In subsequent one-to-ones, the conversation would be about this how, with little time spent on the what.

In good team meetings, we would discuss our team performance against objectives, the organisational performance, often from an “official” corporate briefing document, and have a conversation about that, with feedback going back up the line. There would also be development activity, where we learned as a team to work better together to deliver what we needed to do.

In all those examples there is a common theme – the use of employee voice. Meetings are not tell and listen, they are always conversations, two-way, with information and opinions shared, talked over and something new taken away by both sides.

This, as I say, is the best. Not all meetings have been anything like that quality. In one organisation I was a manager and got sent on an appraisal course, where I learned the basics of appraisal, and the importance of cascading objectives. I got back to the office and my boss told me to go and appraise people. I explained I needed my appraisal first, so I could cascade objectives and have a context for the conversation.

“I haven’t been on the course,” said my boss. “You can do it without having your appraisal.”

So I did, but I can’t imagine anyone got very much out of them. The company did, however, tick a box which said “has staff appraisal system in place” and duly earned Investors In People status, an irony akin to Henry Kissinger winning the Nobel Peace Prize (hat-tip there to the great Tom Lehrer. You should all go out and listen to him. A great and wise man).

Any road up, bad meetings aren’t conversations, but one where the team sit and listen while being told what to do.

Now, in some, probably many organisations, people may not feel safe in speaking up. The recent headlines about the scandals in the NHS and Banking are indicative of cultures where speaking out was considered unsafe or ineffective, speak up and you are ignored or, worse, disciplined or sacked.

How do you give the employee their voice in these organisations, where they are probably needed more than elsewhere? 

A survey is a good place to start, as they are often anonymous. A helpline or whistle-blower line can also help.

Managerless meetings can be used – I have seen them used effectively. In these teams meet and minutes are taken anonymously, then fed through a trusted intermediary to management (usually a couple of levels higher than the team manager).

Trade unions and their alternatives, the staff councils and forums, are immeasurably valuable in this field, as well, as long as they are credible.

All these ideas can work, but only if management listen and respond. Even of what employees put forward is unworkable or impossible, take the time to respond, explain why it is unworkable or impossible. At least the employee knows their voice has been heard, they have been listened to. At best, the conversation could provide a new insight or innovation; what you thought was impossible turns out to be, in fact, possible.

Having your say is great, but it is not enough; someone has to listen to that voice, and respond, in order to engage in a conversation. Because if you speak and are not hearer, sooner or later you are going to stop speaking.


In our previous blog we discussed the importance of the strategic narrative, and in doing so explained the importance of the cascade of the narrative. Leaders and managers play a key role in this, and this blog looks at aspects of their role in the process.

The senior leaders of an organisation are the ones who come up with the strategy; in our previous example of Grommetco, it was to become the first choice of grommet suppliers to the chandler and ironmongers of North West England.

Imagine Grommetco has a number of divisions. There is Research and Development, where highly trained grommet boffins, culled from the finest universities in the land, toil to produce the latest, most cutting edge grommets.

There is manufacture, where people in overalls and hairnets work the shining machines which produce the grommets.

There is warehousing and logistics, who store the grommets and ensure delivery to the chandlers and ironmongers of North West England. Alongside them are procurement, who ensure the finest quality raw materials are sourced and delivered. 

Over there is sales, teams of sharp-suited professionals with the smoothest of all patters ready to go out and ensure repeat business for Grommetco, to be its public face and voice.

Over there is marketing, and next to them finance and accounts, IT, and then Human Resources.

At this point, permit me to descend into anecdote. I was leading a session some years ago at which the results of the engagement survey was being shared with a team from HR. I asked, in passing, what people thought of a couple of products the business had recently launched, to not inconsiderable fanfare. Blank looks ensued. Puzzlement, even bafflement.

“I work in HR,” said one lady. “Why do I need to know what products we sell?”

This rejoinder changed the nature of the rest of the session quite fundamentally, and gave me an explanation for a section of the results which I had found slightly puzzling up until that point.

It also uncovered a common theme among HR departments, which I have encountered in most such places I have come across, the old “cobblers children” issue. HR, usually, design the process to set objectives and performance measures, as this, usually, feeds into the reward systems which are also owned by HR. they spend so much time and energy helping the rest of the business do to right, they never have the time or energy to do it for themselves. I guess a few of you, good readers, are HR people, and I’d love to know if this rings a bell.

Anyway, I digress, and back to Grommetco.

The board, made up of the CEO, CFO, CIO, CPO, marketing director, director of procurement and logistics and the MD of the manufacturing division.

They agree they want Grommetco to be the first choice of grommet suppliers to the chandler and ironmongers of North West England, now it is their job to translate that to the rest of the organisation, and translate it into a narrative by which they can engage their people.

The easy thing for those leaders to do would be to switch “grommet suppliers” to their division name; again, I have seen this done. One organisation I am familiar with wanted to be “the most admired (type of business) in the UK”. Within a month or two, I was working in a department that wanted to be “the most admired HR department in the UK.”

Which is fine, unless the business doesn’t need an admired HR department, it needs one that is effective in getting the right people in post to serve customers. Having the stuff that HR departments are admired for (as they will only, really, be admired by other HR departments, are all), such as cutting edge reward strategies, or having zero Industrial Tribunal losses, may not be what the company needed to deliver its strategy.

So don’t just do that. Instead, the leader has to sit with their local leadership team and discuss the narrative; what do they need to do to make Grommetco the number one? What does that mean for manufacturing? For procurement? For warehousing? For HR, for that matter?

At each stage the managers need to tell the same narrative in a way that is meaningful for their departments. Does being number one mean having the best grommets? Or the best grommets within a certain price threshold? Does it mean having an award-winning Human Capital Measurement strategy, or getting the best boffins into R&D by knowing which university courses produce the finest grommet boffins?

Engaging managers do this, and do this well. In doing so, they develop the strategic targets for the divisions, and then their departments, and their teams, right down to the conversation where each line manager sits down with each person in their team to discuss their objectives for the year. To engage people, the manager doesn’t set objectives, they agree them with the team member. In my experience the best objectives are designed by the team member rather than the manager, but only when the team member truly understands the team’s role in delivering the strategic vision.

Then they give that team member the scope and support they need to achieve those objectives, allowing them as much freedom and autonomy as possible.

Engaging managers are ones who translate the strategy readily and help others to understand it. They are coaches and mentors. They do not command or control, they achieve through their teams, rather than as individuals, they let people make mistakes and then make sure everyone learns from them.

Engaging managers are courageous, they cascade power and accept responsibility, rather than the other way around.

What kind of leaders and managers are in your organisation? How do you help them engage the rest of the business? Have a think.

In Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant dystopian novel The Road, a man and a boy wander through a post-apocalyptic world, alone, desperate, without any notion of their destination and best on all sides with danger.
Now I can’t imagine for one second that this is any fun at all, and yet thousands, probably millions of people across the UK and wider world do something akin to this every day when they go to work.
Their day is pointless, without purpose, and they are beset by distractions and, although very few are shot at with bows and arrows, they probably find it annoying, unnerving, and downright disengaging.
What they lack is an idea of what they are doing and why they are doing it – they want a purpose, a reason for being at work and completing the tasks they have been allotted. They need, in short, a strategic narrative.
Every business should have a strategy – a reason to exist. At its most basic, that reason will be “sell stuff to people”; however, they also have to identify the stuff they sell, and the people who will buy it. So you have to go a bit deeper, and define yourself a bit more clearly, say: “we will make grommets for 5p and sell them to people requiring grommets for 10p”.
That gives you a clearer sense of purpose, but that’s more of a business plan, really.
What you need is something a bit catchier. “We will be the first choice of grommet suppliers to the chandler and ironmongers of North West England”.
That’s more like it – there’s a bit of ambition in there, a sense of a journey, and giving clarity about what they want to be.
Now, when the dignitary visits Grommetco and sees a chap wielding a broom with a sense of purpose and engagement, and said dignitary asks the broom-wielder “what, my fine chap, are you doing here today?” the broom-wielding one will reply, in a trice, “why, sir or madam, I am helping Grommetco become the first choice of grommet suppliers to the chandlers and ironmongers of North West England.”
Because our broom-wielding hero has had the strategic vision explained to them in a meaningful and inspiring way, and therefore understands how his broom-wielding activities fit into that compelling strategic narrative.
This example, of course, is based on President Kennedy’s visit to Nasa, where the late President confronted just such a chap, happily brushing a corridor or somesuch and asked him what he was doing.
“Helping put a man on the moon, Mr President,” came the answer. There was an organisation with a clear strategic narrative, set, of course, by President Kennnedy himself when he committed to out a man on the moon by the end of the decade. And they made it.
What the strategic narrative gave our broom-wielding fellows was a sense of purpose beyond where the dust needs to go, or where he left the keys to the broom cupboard. With the best will in the world, sweeping up is going to have limited job satisfaction even for the most autotelic personality. Look it up, I’m not going to give you everything on a plate.
However, putting a man on the moon, or even becoming the number one grommet supplier to various merchants across the North West of England gives a deeper, more profound sense of purpose to the most menial of tasks.
I was working with a client recently where there was a disconnect between the day job and the big picture. Most people really enjoyed their jobs, which were largely technical and what you would call vocational – they had studied long and hard at university to qualify themselves to do this job, and were very proud to do it. They enjoyed their work and were highly engaged with it – they had role engagement, as we engagement gurus have it.
What was missing, however, was a mental link to the wider purpose of the organisation. This had been made clear, it was summarised in four points. As mission statements go, it was a pretty good one. Clear, concise, unambiguous.
But people couldn’t make the link between what they did, and those four points. OK, they would say. I’m doing this immensely clever and technical job to the best of my considerable ability, but I cannot see how this delivers A, B C or D.
Leaders had not done the narrative bit, you see. They had not told the story of how roles deliver the purpose.
In an ideal world, and in successful organisations that do this well, senior leaders set the general direction, they give the purpose and vision. They tell a story about why the organisation is there, what it does, how it does it. Around this are the values they want to promote in the organisation, the non-negotiable core emotional commitments to how things are done there.
Throughout the organisation divisions, departments, teams and ultimately individuals translate this strategic narrative into their own language, replicating that sense of purpose, that reason for being in a way that is meaningful at each iteration, yet stays true to the original vision.
It’s not easy. But it is possible. I’ve seen it done, well, and to so well. One things that can help is an overall image or metaphor, such as climbing a mountain, building a village, a long car journey or even planting a forest. For me, the mountain is the least successful, by the way; it tends to put off those who question the sanity of climbers, and begs the question “what do we do when we reach the top?”
But here are some simple guidelines, which may help

  • Keep it simple. A single strapline, with a few key sentences of explanation
  • Keep it clear and unambiguous. Do not give wiggle room, or space for too much interpretation
  • Use an image – preferably one that can be easily adapted 
  • Use stories, have a narrative, people relate to stories
  • Link your purpose to your brand
  • Have very clear organisational values in place, and stay true to them

This last point brings us to another enabler of engagement, organisational integrity, more of which in a future blog.
Any road up, do this, and people will use the narrative to link their day job to the purpose of the organisation, and they will engage with the organisation, as well as their role. Simples.

So you’ve done the survey, you’ve got the insight, done the action plans. Now you need to know if it’s working. You need to measure.
As explained in my last blog, the first instinct may be to re-survey. Or ask the engagement questions again (after all, the point is to improve engagement, isn’t it?)
The thing is, engagement is an outcome of the stuff you do, and make take a bit of time to shift in the right direction. I have known leaders get a but disheartened when they re-run engagement questions after three months and there’s no real movement. But they needn’t be, they should have a look at their progress.
But how?
Fair point. There is a maxim in business that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. This is not the time to debate that, and believe me I have debated that quite a few times. Let’s agree with it for the purposes of this blog, however, and say what can we measure.
Engagement? Well not yet, probably not until you do the engagement survey again. Instead have a look at what you said you would do, and see if you’ve done it.
For example, say that your survey uncovered the fact that team members weren’t happy with their one to ones. They didn’t happen, or, if they did, they were too focused on targets and performance, and not enough on development.
So in your action plan there was an action – all team members to have a monthly one to one with the team manager, and that one to one will be focused on development and progress towards objectives.
So, do you measure engagement to see if it’s working three months in? Given how long it takes to share the results, get insight and set actions, you’d be lucky if people had experienced more than a couple of one to ones at this stage. What possible impact could that have had? Unless the one to ones were truly spectacular.
Instead, ask people “have you had a one to one every month”. That gives you quantitative data. Then ask “how effective was it at shaping your development and meeting your objectives?” That will give you qualitative data.
Quant and qual, and directly aligned to your action plan. What more could, you ask for?
Now you could ask these questions in a survey, but, as discussed previously, that might not be the best way. Instead, try a focus group. Or in a one to one. Or at a team meeting. Get the data, and have a conversation about it, because that will give you insight and help you improve things as you g along.
To sum up: measure, but be careful what you measure, and how you measure it. Set yourself up for success, not disheartening lack of progress.
Because by having the conversation and reacting to people’s feedback you are giving them a voice, and demonstrating that you are listening to that voice. And that, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, is how you get engagement.
Well, one of the ways. In the next few blogs I’ll take a look at drivers of engagement, what you need to do to engage your people. And guess what? It’s easier, and much, much harder than you think.

The past few blogs have looked at how to get insight from employee surveys, and how to use that insight to drive meaningful action. This blog will explain why you shouldn’t have bothered in the first place.
This may sound strange; after all, I make my living from employee surveys, and I think they are valuable and have their place.
However, sometimes surveys are sometimes the wrong thing to do, and are in fact a way of avoiding doing something, rather than providing insight on what to do.
I’m sure that if you work in an organisation on surveys, you will have had a conversation or two, often with a leader, about how they can do their own survey. A pulse check, to see how things are going, or to uncover some particular issue in their area.
In my experience this happened most in IT or Finance functions, but that may just be me.
Wherever it was, the conversations would go in a fairly similar way. Remember when reading this that will already have had some high quality insight from the survey.
Me: “How can I help?” (well, I am a consultant)
Leader: “We’ve had a look at the survey results and we need to do another survey to really get underneath our issues.”
Me: “Your issues?”
Leader: “Yes, we think we have some specific issues that affect just our part of the organisation, because of some local things. We need to really get into them and find out what they are.”
Me: “Why don’t you just ask people?”
Leader: “Well that’s why we need a survey, to ask people.”
Me: “Why do you need a survey? Your people are right there, just go and ask them.”
Leader: “But we want a survey.”
There is the pulse check variation, as well.
Me: “How can I help?”
Leader: “We need a survey to see how well the action plans are working.”
Me: “You had a survey three months ago. Everyone did.”
Leader: “Yes, and we put action plans in place. We need to measure how well they are going.”
Me: “But it’s only been three months. I doubt there had been much meaningful change yet, don’t you think people might get a bit annoyed at having to fill in another survey?”
Leader: “But how will we know if its working if we can’t measure it?”
Me: “Why don’t you just ask people…” etc, etc.
At this point, being an evil genius, I will have reached into my special consultant’s big back pocket where I carry my evidence for when I need to challenge something. (That’s my tip for today, by the way, if you want to challenge somebody, especially somebody senior, make damn sure you can back it up with evidence. You’re welcome.)
In there, I will have data on the behavioural norms of that bit of the organisation, and I will see that there is lots of avoidance going on. Responsibilities are pushed upstairs. Mistakes are buried. No-one takes responsibility, and blame is shoved elsewhere. People seem to get on, and conversations are polite and pleasant, no matter what has gone on. An erstwhile colleague of mine summed it up rather elegantly in the phrase “never be discovered in the same room as a decision”.
Because the leader knows they just need to talk to people but they have an overriding need to avoid doing that. Because they might have to have a difficult conversation. They might need someone to be honest about failure or mistakes. Even worse, the leader in question may have made those mistakes, or overseen that failure. They may need to take responsibility, and that is something that just can’t happen in a culture of avoidance.
Rather than speak to people, they give the illusion of giving them a voice by doing a survey, and then the most challenging thing they have to face is some tricky conditional formatting on a spreadsheet.
It’s the antithesis of engagement, dressed up to look like it.
Thus armed with my cultural diagnostic, I then challenge said leader. “Your desire to do more surveys is but another example of your behavioural norm of avoidance,” I say. “You need to speak to people, face to face, openly and in a way that they can feed back honestly and in a safe way.”
What happens next varies; in the best case scenario they listen, and I sit down with them and help them work out a programme of focus groups and town hall meetings where people can have their say and add further insight and depth to the leader’s understanding. They do this, and things generally change for the better.
Or they go over my head and get their director to ask the HRD to let them do a survey. (Hopefully the HRD says no, you need to speak to your people, because they understand how things should work).
Or they just go ahead and do a survey anyway, then get bogged down in analysis paralysis because hey, it’s important, we need to get this right, you know?
Sometimes they even come back and ask for help with the results. And I tell them to talk to people.
The vast majority of conversations I have which start with “we need to do a survey” go along these kind of lines; if you have a survey, done across the organisation on an annual basis, then there is very little that will convince me that you need any more.
Survey fatigue is when you ask people over and over again what they think of working here without doing anything about it. At some point people are going to say “why bother?”, and stop bothering.
So next time you want to know how people are feeling in your bit of the organisation, ask yourself: what’s the best way to do this? How will I find out how things are going? If I want a survey is it because I want to know what is happening, or actually avoid knowing?
Or, if you are the survey person ask yourself is a survey the best way? And do I have the evidence in my big back pocket to prove that it isn’t?

Over the past couple of blogs I’ve discussed what happens after your survey, moving from having a whole bunch of data through a process to get you some insight. Which is fantastic, but also completely pointless unless you take the next step. And that next step is to act.
This begs a couple of questions, though. Who and what – who acts, and what do they do?
The answer, as ever, is (all together now) “it depends”. It depends on what your insight tells you. But I think there are some general rules, some high level guidance to answer those questions, and these would be:
Who? Whoever you can get to do something.
What? Whatever they can do that will move you forward.
To explain a bit more: who should be whoever it needs to be to make the change. If the key insight is that leadership is out of touch with the grass roots then you need two groups to act: leaders, and grass roots. Oh, and probably some others to help out, maybe your exec coaching team, or the comms team can support activity.
What you don’t want, however, is just leaders acting. There has to be give and take, quid pro quo. Get leaders out there, in a vacuum, without engaging people on the ground to interact with them, and I’m not sure you’re going to get much of a bang for what could be an expensive buck.
Rather you get the situation which makes the Queen think every building in the country smells the same: of fresh paint. Get leaders, especially senior leaders, dropping in on the front line staff can be great, but you need those visits not to be a royal progress, with half-hearted handshakes with nervous branch colleagues making weak jokes about the tea from the machine.
What you need is for the people on the ground to be empowered, willing and able to tell it how it is. Not whine and complain, but have an actual dialogue. Help the people on the ground help the leaders really understand what life is like at the sharp end, so they can in turn hone and develop the organisational strategy based on the reality of life, rather than a filtered version that they may otherwise get.
Ideally, get as many people involved as you can. Now I know times are hard, staffing levels will not be what they were, unless you are in a very fortunate place, and people are busy. But you’ve been to the trouble and no little expense of doing a survey, asking people what they think and feel, then it’s time and money well spent to follow that up with action.
What depends on what people can do. What is the capability of the organisation? This is important. It’s all well and good deciding you need a new reward policy with more bunce for everyone, but what if the money isn’t there? Or having all your leaders going through an in-depth leadership development experience in a yurt in Snowdonia if no-one is going to be left to run the business and make the decisions that need to be made.
So do something, but make it something you can do. Most of you will have come across C-smart, as used in agreeing personal objectives (and yes, that’s agreeing objectives, not setting them, but that’s for another blog, another time). I find it can be really useful to make your survey action plans c-smart too, so they are:
Challenging – do they really move things beyond the status quo?
Specific – do they address the issues that have been raised in a meaningful and clear way
Measurable – are you clear on what success looks like? – Think in terms of outcomes for your people rather than scores for specific questions
Agreed – is there consensus within your team that this is the right thing to do? Buy-in will help ensure your action is successful
Realistic – can you actually do this? Is it in your capability and sphere of influence?
Time-bound – you need to be clear on when actions need to be complete and the outcomes achieved
One thing that really brasses people off if they have taken the trouble to fill in a survey is that nothing happens. Or at least nothing seems to happen. Which brings me to the last bit.
Whatever you do, tell people you are going to do it. And tell them why.
“You remember what you said in the survey? Well, we’re doing this about it.”
Then, when you’re doing it, tell them again. And tell them why again.
Then, when you’ve done it, tell them what you did. And why you did it.
And then think how much more powerful this will be if the people you are telling are also the people that are doing.
“You remember what we said in the survey? Well, this is what we’re doing about it.”
Doesn’t that sound better? And believe me, it will help engage people.
I worked with a business who did this really well. They had a call centre which specialised in helping people who were victims of fraud. The people on the phones were called customer advisers, the same as all the other call centres in the business, who actually advised customers.
The people weren’t happy about this. They wanted a job title which reflected their specialised and difficult work. And they used the colleague survey to let the managers know about it.
The powers that be agreed. The changes were put in place.
Now, it would have been easy for the big boss to go along, make a grand announcement, and then wander back off to head office with a nice warm glow.
But not this lot. No, they really got engagement. They went another route. At the start of the shift, a member of each team (not the manager, necessarily) stood up and shared the news with their colleagues. “Remember what we said? This is what we did.”
Boom! That’s engagement.

Most big organisations have employee surveys these days. Many smaller ones, too. Which is all well and good, but what happens next?
I know of one company, albeit from a few years back, who carried out an annual employee survey. The forms were filled in and then, some time later, a paragraph appeared in a report published externally telling the readers of that report what the employee engagement score was.
Now this was a fine report, one of the best of its kind. But I’m not sure it was worth the time and effort (and cost) of doing an employee survey just so a box can be ticked and a score put in a report, no matter how good that report is.
This is an extreme, of course, and that organisation later went on to have one of the best employee surveys in the world, in terms of the quality of insight that it provided.
Because that’s what an organisation needs from a survey – insight.
What every employee engagement survey will give you is a number, hopefully an idea of how engaged your people are – or, more accurately, what proportion of your people are engaged.
This is good to know, but you need more.
Is the percentage of people that are engaged a good percentage? Is it bad? Is it middling? Is there room for improvement or are you market-leading and have something you can leverage your employer brand with?
Next – what is making the people who are engaged, engaged? And what is making the people who aren’t engaged disengaged? Is there something you need to do more of? Or less of? Or something new you need to do?
To answer all these you need insight.
For me, the first step on the journey to insight is to study the data. Analyse it, look for patterns. You don’t even need to be a statistician (but it will help with large organisations if someone who is takes a look at things). Just by looking at high level scores you can see some things. Do some parts of the business have higher scores than the rest? Or lower?
Look at the other scores – which are high for teams where the engagement scores are high? Which are low?
This may be time to get statistical analysis done. Anyone with a spreadsheet programme like Numbers can do some statistical analysis with a bit of patience and knowledge. Simple correlations can help identify patterns and high level drivers of engagement, simply by identifying similar patterns in the scores of different things.
Beyond this, it’s probably best to get the professionals involved. People with degrees in difficult sums with all manner of clever algorithms can produce real insight on what buttons to push within an organisation to help improve things.
Numbers will take you far, but only so far. You also need some words, and most engagement surveys will include some free-text questions. These are usually along the lines of “what’s gone well” and “what’s gone badly”. Mind you, in the spirit of appreciative inquiry, I might go with “what could have gone better”. Either way, people will tell you, and you’ll have more data to look at.
For me, numbers give you a framework, an outline, but it’s the text comments that can let you fill them in, give those bald numbers colour and shade – a more complete picture.
One question I really like for a free text question is “what’s it like to work here in three words”. You can create a word cloud with this (try which can provide a really impactful image you can share with the leadership team (or other appropriate audience). And then you can look at which words are used together.
People might describe life as “challenging”. But what does that mean? Is it a good challenge, like climbing a mountain or doing a charity run? Or is it a bad challenge like formulating a solution for world peace or playing Kwik Cricket against a team including Jimmy Anderson and Graham Swan. (American readers, please insert suitable softball analogy involving the starting pitcher of the New York Yankees or some such).
Context is everything. So someone who describes work as challenging, exciting, enjoyable is at one end of a spectrum. At the other end someone else might say challenging, stressful, confusing. Both challenging, but very, very different.
Data, numbers and words, give you a picture, but you need one more thing to turn that picture into insight, and that is an extra layer of context – what I would call “local knowledge”.
This has to come from within, and from the grass roots of the organisation. When the survey took place, what was happening in the organisation? Big changes or steady state? Was the business performing well or badly? How busy was everyone? What were the key pieces of corporate communication? How was the brand doing in the marketplace?
All this gives you the context – the lens to view the data through. This is not, by the way, a chance to get excuses in, what you are looking for is not causes for a high score here or a low score there, what you are looking for is reasons, the reasons why people are engaged or, indeed, disengaged.
And this in turn can only be flushed out in a conversation, a dialogue with the people who filled in the survey. In my view, this is the stage where the insight arrives. This is where you get your “aha” moment, when pennies drop (and sometimes jaws), when you get that knowledge, that understanding that truly allows you to achieve meaningful change. Insight, in other words.
So, what do you with your data? Look at numbers? Read the words? Analyse? Get statisticians involved? Have a dialogue? Get some real and meaningful insight? Have a think, and see if you can step up a gear.

When I’m not doing cool stuff like writing blogs and consulting I like to read (and write, I write books for a hobby). I read pretty much anything, but enjoy fiction when I’m relaxing.

One of my favourite authors is a chap called Albert Camus, a Frenchman born in Algeria, who was a goalkeeper and famously once said that everything he knew he learned from football.

Camus was also a philosopher, an absurdist, and good mates (for a while) with Jean-Paul Sartre, who was an existentialist. If I were a philosopher, I daresay I would be an absurdist too, with a measure of existentialism thrown in for good measure.

By now I’m sure most people are getting bored and want me to get to the point, and I promise that I will, but I just need to blether on for a little while longer about philosophy, so please indulge me. It will be worth it, I promise.

Existentialism is quite a tricky concept, and to get your head around it, you may want to read Sartre’s epic Being and Nothingness, all 600-odd pages of it, it being an essay on Phenomenological Ontology. I read it. All of it. Mainly to look cool in the pub.

Anyway, one of the concepts that is key to the work, and to existentialism is the concept of authenticity and bad faith. Sartre says we are who we are, due to the various elements that make up our characters, and we must know what that nature is (he called it facticité, or facticity), and we must live in a way that is true to that. If we don’t, then we are self-deluding and living in bad faith, or mauvaise foi

I read Sartre at University, where I did a subsidiary course in philosophy, and really got into it. Sorry.

A good many years later I was on a leadership development course, which was a truly inspiring, if not life-changing event, and I found myself yattering on to my colleagues over a pint in the evening about Sartre, mauvaise foi and facticité.

We had spent the day doing some serious navel gazing, looking inside ourselves, getting to the root of who we were. We used a great technique to discover our core values – just think of something you like, something that motivates you, and then ask “what does it give you” over and over again, until you can’t answer any more. My core value, what I sought most, was fulfillment, by the way. Other people got to security, or safety, or happiness, or peace. Have a go, preferably with a partner.

Anyway, during the course of the day we had really got to our heart and soul, our true essence – our facticité, in fact. And why had we done this? Because, the fine folk who ran the course told us, we need to be true to that self in order to lead. If we don’t, then people won’t follow us. 

What we were learning was the importance of authenticity, and that is vital to leadership.

I recently came across some research done by Deloitte, which touched on the use of social media to raise leadership visibility and help employees engage with the organisational culture. Deloitte found: 

Executives may be using social media as a crutch to build culture and seem accessible — but good leadership can’t be dialed-in. Norms for building an exceptional culture and organization have not changed.”

And they found a that employees who scored highly on being happy at work and feeling valued by the company also scored highly on their belief that senior leaders acted in accordance to the values of the organisation.

This says to me that engaged employees see examples of authentic leadership every day; they see leaders walking the talk.

What does that look like? I’ve seen plenty of leaders who can do the talk, but fewer who can do the walk. The best leaders are those who do both, without any doubt.

I recall doing a series of roadshows for field-based sales people. We were developing a new operating model for them, as the world in which they operated had changed significantly, not the least because of the regulatory environment.

The star turn was the CEO, and, for most of the people in the room, it was the first time they had seen a CEO in real life, ever. His opening line was “I started out in sales, I know what it’s like to be there on a Monday morning with an empty diary”, and they were in the palm of his hand.

Because he wasn’t trying a line to pull them in, he really had been there, he was being honest, and authentic, and the audience responded.

Another leader came on board to lead a major modernisation programme. It was a massive piece of work, and I was leading the internal comms team at the time. The Programme Leader got me in on day one and said he wanted to do a regular communication. We spent quite a bit of time together, working out what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it.

In the end we went for a weekly online diary – what would be called a blog now – which was clearly and authentically in his tone of voice. It was for the firm the first time a senior manager had spoken to them on a regular basis and told them, openly and honestly, what was going on. It was truly revolutionary.

The modernisation programme was a big success. It turned the company around, from having months to live to being a modern, exciting business with a great future. I think that authentic leadership had a lot to do with its success.

If you are a leader, what is at your core, what are the values that you live by? Do you lead by the same values? If you follow a leader – are they authentic? Do you trust them, believe them, do you truly follow, or just do what you can get away with to look like you are doing as you are told?

Just keep asking – what do I want, and what does it give me…

You can see the Deloitte research here.

In my last blog I discussed patterns of behaviour – underlying these are what are known as behavioural norms. These are the behaviours people within an organisation see as being rewarded and expected.

Now this is could well be a very different thing from what the organisation expects and wants to reward. Most organisations these days have competency frameworks, which they create to help manage performance.

Some also have a behavioural framework, which builds on this and looks at how people deliver the competencies, and measure performance on that basis as well.

In a previous employer, I watched the evolution of this process – when I started, performance was evaluated at an annual appraisal meeting with your line manager. Boxes were ticked, and you got a pay rise. How well you actually had performed didn’t seem to come into it.

The company went through a merger and a modernisation programme, and then the new company went through a major transformation programme, which included a people element.

That’s when the whole idea of using performance, rather than length of service, to decide how much employees earned came into the mix. It caused a bit of grumbling, especially among those more used to just turning up every year, but it got in.

The trouble was, it just measured what you did. Everyone had objectives, which could be things like call centre targets, or something a bit more tenuous, but it would link back to a role profile, and, hopefully, a team or departmental plan.

Then I was at an event, and I heard a couple of stories, told by a chap who ran a call centre for a financial services company – he and it shall remain nameless, for what will become obvious reasons.

The first one was about a customer who had, sadly, died. His family contacted us to sort out surrendering a policy. I won’t go into details, but this call eventually resulted in the son of the late customer emailing every member of the board with a litany of complaints of pointless letters, mistakes, incorrect information being given out and delays.

The leader in question got a call from the CEO, and he investigated. He went through every step of the process, in detail, and spoke to every single member of staff who had been involved.

And what did he uncover? Laziness? Stupidity? Incompetence? No, not at all. Everyone had done their job as they were supposed to do. They had done their bit of the process, and then handed it on. The issue was that the customer’s widow hadn’t asked for the right thing in the first place, but something slightly different, and that had been put into the process.

Why did it happen? Not the processes – it was because that is how they did things in that company – that was the behavioural norm. Do your job, pass it on, then don’t worry about it.

If anyone in the chain had thought a bit wider, taken some personal responsibility to ensure that the bereaved customer was being treated as they might like to be treated, they might have gone back and checked, or made sure that the customer really did want what they had asked for

But that wasn’t what was done. People were rewarded for ticking the boxes and following the process, not for going above and beyond, or having empathy for the customer.

I was speaking to the leader afterwards and said I felt that there was something missing from their reward systems if that is what happened – and he agreed, and told me he had heard of a company where the exec team had only behavioural targets in their personal KPIs. Amazing.

He also told me the second story – shorter and sweeter. “Do you know what I did with the most successful team manager in my call centre?” he asked. “I sacked him, because he was a bully.”

He was a bit of a lone voice in those days, but I told his stories to people in my organisation, and gradually thinking shifted, and evolved, as these things do. By the time I left, half a dozen years later, everyone had 50% of their KPIs based on behaviours, and 50% on performance – the how was as important as the what.

These behaviours were in a framework, clearly defined, and linked directly to the organisational values – and values is what I’ll discuss in the next blog as we dive deeper into the culture model.

Are the behavioural norms in your organisation helping you do the right thing for your customers? Do you know what the behavioural norms are? Do people  go the extra mile, do they put themselves in the shoes of the customer? Are stories like the one about the deceased customer likely to be told about your business?

As ever, get in touch if you want a chat about this.

Hands up if you’ve heard of the Monkeysphere?

OK, hands down, you look silly staring at the screen of your computer/phone/tablet/other as-yet-to-be-invented device with your hand in the air, like a primary school child needing a wee.

The Monkeysphere is based on neurological research. The theory says that there is only room in a primate brain for around 150 other primates. Beyond that, and primates (chimps, lemurs, people) can’t really keep track.

If your organisation is bigger than 150 people, then those people may, therefore, struggle to engage with it. They stop seeing it as a group of fellow primates and more as an amorphous, intangible mass.

Some companies have a maximum operating unit size of around 150. If they get too big, then they are split up. Gore and Semco are two examples, and there are more.

Most other companies can’t (or won’t) do that – but it is impossible to operate in large groups, and most organisations operate in smaller units, breaking down to a team.

I’ve worked in teams of 2, and teams of 20+. My personal view that anything bigger than 10-12 is too big, anything less than 5-6 is too small. Whatever their size, however, the important thing is to make sure that they operate as a team.

After ensuring personal effectiveness of all your people, team effectiveness is most important in delivering organisational effectiveness. Again, a personal opinion, but one based on many years of experience, study and research – an informed opinion (rather than a humble one).

Anyway, the tools and techniques used to measure personal and organisational effectiveness and culture can also be applied to teams. You can check how effective they are, show them, and then work with them to help them get better.

One tool I have used with great success is based on a survival simulation. Your team is put in an imaginary situation where they are presented with options – they are then given a timescale to decide about the various options and say how they would act. They record their answers individually and then as a team.

You then run a questionnaire to check the experience of the various members of the team – and it’s also important to observe how they went about things.

After this you give them the real answers – prepared by an appropriate expert. From the differences between their personal and team decisions and the “right” answers you can see how effective thy would be – as a team or as individuals.

I like the survival simulations because they are usually fun, and are relatively safe. You can run business simulations (or even use a real example, although it is tricky to get a “right” answer and check the effectiveness), but these tend to be a bit too close to home and people are less likely to make any decisions, in my experience. Survival situations are less prone to people worrying about getting the wrong answer and looking daft.

The feedback you get back is rich. Even without using the full tool, good observation can give really useful insight. In one session I ran, every member of the team but one huddled together at one end of the table. The individual at the other end then criticised the decision making, saying “you did this, you did that” – “you”, not “we”. They were meant to be a team, in it together to survive. Just pointing out that behaviour caused a number of pennies (and the odd jaw) to drop, and helped that team make a breakthrough.

Like all development, teams need to work, re-visit their development and make sure that changes have been made and are still effective. It’s a process that should continue through the life of the team, and especially as new members come in and out. My take on teams is as follows.

1) In teams, diversity is strength. Everyone should bring their own strength to the group, and everyone should be willing, able and ready to use the strengths of others to make up for their own weaknesses. Tools such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator ™ are great for understanding how people like to work and how you can galvanise diversity.

2) Dialogue always beats debate. Dialogue is about bringing ideas together to make something new and better with those ideas. Debate is about one side proving its view of things is right, and the other side is wrong. Imagine how our country would be if we had parliamentary dialogues, rather than debates.

3) As a team, you can do things by consensus, or by consent. Consensus means everyone has to be happy with everything, which can lead to a more contented team, but also to watered-down and less effective solutions. Consent means giving permission for people to lead the team in a certain direction, even if not everyone is convinced that is the way to go. What you lose in comfort you can gain in innovation and effectiveness.

Looking at team effectiveness in these areas is a great way to start to build a team development plan, and then check the progress of the plan once it’s in place. If you fancy a go, give me a shout.