How High-Performance Organizations Engage Their Employees

As a Consultant, I often get asked “How High-Performance Organizations Engage Their Employees? What do they do to bring it to the next level? What are the best practices?”

There are no silver bullets for engagement or high performance. By that I mean that there is no single list of best practices that an organization can just roll out and become high performance. The reason being that a best practice for company ABC s not necessarily a best practice for company XYZ. Thus the key is not to apply a best practice, but to develop the right method such that your company develops, systematizes and optimizes its own best practices. To use a worn-out analogy, the solution to hunger is fishing, not fish.

There are a lot of methods that High Performance Organizations (HPO) take when they go about getting the best out of their employee surveys. I call it “methods” or “approaches” to stay away from the best practices terminology. These methods can have different levels of impact.

Survey Program management. At this level, there is actually some best practices, because there are a lot of regularities among organizations. HPOs take the survey seriously, use it as a business tool and survey regularly (once every year).  In a report (Sharing Client Best Practices for Survey Feedback and Action Planning), Kenexa summarizes the best practices to ensure a top notch survey program, with things like:

  • Decide at which level managers will be held accountable for taking action on survey results.
  • Develop a process for identifying and sharing internal best practices through survey feedback and action planning.
  • Set appropriate expectations for action plan follow-up before the survey
  • Create a supportive structure of “Survey Champions” (i.e., internal survey feedback experts) to help managers in the rollout process.
  • Identify managers who, through successful past experiences, can serve as organizational role models; give them visibility and a platform to share how they achieved their successes
  • Create and make easily available a centralized database of managerial best practices in achieving high engagement; draw from provider databases of action plan ideas as well.

In a nutshell, the program is explicitly endorsed and managed. They focus on the drivers, select a few plans, and implement them diligently. The article attached is very detailed.

Measuring and driving business impact. We also know from our research that most of the time, the biggest barrier to increasing engagement is leadership buy-in and commitment. If the leaders do not see the business relevance of engagement, it will be harder for them to commit time, resources and attention.

To make engagement a business topic, we recommend conducting a linkage analysis that looks at the impact of engagement or performance enablement (or any survey item) on business metrics. Think of looking at the impact of an increase in engagement for customer retention, or average spend by customer, etc. The key is to (1) measure the success of the program by looking at business metrics and (2) to use the survey to improve strategic initiatives and customer satisfaction. Most organizations (1) use participation rate or engagement as a measure of success, and (2) use the survey to implement employees or HR initiatives. In both cases, since the change and the measurement is not couched in terms that speaks to leaders, it is harder for them to support initiatives that are not directly related to the strategy, the customer and business metrics.

For the linkage research, the key is to find the metrics that matters for leaders, and see how they are affected by survey results.  intentional, how they put emphasis on survey follow-up, etc.

You can use linkage research to demonstrate value (ROI), to warn about lost value (cost of disengagement, turnover, impact on customers) or to create value (identify levers of change, implement change plans). In the best case scenario, the third one, you conduct a more sophisticated study. At the end of the day, this method implies finding out which behaviours have an impact on engagement and business metrics. It’s more complicated, but that is the holy grail in terms of using the survey to drive change.

Learn from the best, teach the rest. Besides having a great survey program aligned with their strategy and linked with business metrics, most HPOs looks at their top and bottom managers, and learn from them. This can take many shapes.

  • Look at engagement scores, study the managers with highest and lowest scores via interviews, focus groups, site visits, etc. This is the simplest approach. Based on this learning, roll out some training or at least information sharing with all other managers.
  • Select top/bottom performing work groups (branches, units, department, divisions, however it’s more convenient), by looking at multiple criteria (customer satisfaction, financial metrics, engagement, etc.), so that you can really compare the top and bottom groups. Conduct the same kind of qualitative analysis but add quantitative analysis to discover which behaviours have the highest impact. Again, this goes with the study described in the previous bullet points on linkage research. Once these behaviours are identified, review and update processes to roll out these best practices.
  • Look at the most skilled leaders in the company and use 360 assessment (as well as other data points) to identify their behavioural profile. One of our client selected leaders that were at the 90th percentile on two measures in the engagement survey (Manager Effectiveness and Confidence in Senior Leadership), and looked at the type of high performance behaviours  that were common within this group and compare with the least skilled managers.
  • Build training programs designed with behavioural modules (e.g. if a behavior like “continuous improvement” is critically missing across the population, ensure all leaders go through an assessment + coaching process).

Another possible outcome of this process is to review hiring profiles. Some types of hires are more “engageable”, thus using the survey results or other data about best performers should inform how you hire new people – the idea being to replicate the best performers. In the case study mentioned earlier, one of the outcome of the research was to review how managers were selected, trained, promoted and rewarded. There is always a limit to how much you can engage some people who are not meant to be in a certain position or in a certain culture.

Leadership development and succession planning.

Finally, in line with the last example above, and because leadership (at every level) is such an important factor in achieving high performance, the most advanced change management programs look into the preferences (“nature”) and skills (“nurture”) of leaders (See “High Potential for Leadership”).  The idea is to look again at the top and bottom performing leaders as indicated by the engagement survey. For the top performing leaders, you would identify correlations with engagement, identify leadership behaviours, and create a leadership development program (a kind of internal high performance academy if you will); for the least performing leaders, you would also identify correlations with engagement but  also identify remedial activities based on performance gaps.  For instance we can identify which leaders were born to be leaders, but need to develop certain skills, and which one where not meant to be leaders but somehow managed to develop the leadership behaviours, etc. So the plan is closer to succession planning. It can be through online assessment, 360, facilitated sessions or, better, assessment centers (business simulations in which leaders spend time in a simulated business environment designed to evaluate their skills). Given the impact that leadership has on engagement, this is one of the most effective approach to increasing engagement and high performance. When you have the right leaders and they have developed the right behaviours, every metrics improves.