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How hard should you ‘encourage’ people to complete your annual staff survey?

Over the years I have tried very hard. Intricate communications plans involving teaser campaigns, beautifully crafted invitations, videos, posters, screensavers, FAQs, emails, intranet, leaderboards, targeted communications to senior leadership, line managers and blanket emails to everyone in the company before, during and after the survey. Was it really necessary?

I’ve worked closely with four specialist employee survey providers over the last decade and have always been lead to believe that the more you can do to ‘encourage’ participation the better.

The higher the response rate the better quality the feedback and data – and a really high response rate is the sign of how engaged your workforce is right?

You’ll notice the use of quotation marks. It’s because I feel a sense of irony in using the word ‘encourage’.  If the literal meaning of ‘encourage’ includes incentivising, cajoling, pleading, shaming and who knows, perhaps even bullying, the quotation marks would not have been necessary.

Looking back I have a sneaking suspicion I tried too hard.

I believe there is a sweet spot, probably somewhere around the 75% to 85% mark, where all those enthusiastic and willing to take the survey have done so.

In the same vein, I suspect that if you took a cut of the engagement score at the halfway point and compared it to the final score, it would be higher. This despite the belief in some quarters that “the least satisfied people, or those with specific issues, tend to respond first.”

I believe that the additional work required to secure the participation of people that don’t really want to is likely to result in a reduction in the quality and reliability of the data, and certainly in the engagement score (if that is important to you).

It’s human nature. If you are pushed into doing something you don’t really want to do your heart won’t be in it. You won’t do it properly – you’ll just be going through the motions. And if you are seriously miffed at being boxed into a corner, you may even decide to punish the person who has been ‘encouraging’ you through your survey responses.

Naturally I went looking for evidence to support my thinking on this. Whilst I believe gut instinct is a much under-rated attribute in business, I also value the importance of hard fact and empirical evidence. Guess what. I found nothing.

I found plenty of evidence of my earlier assertion that the higher the response rate the higher the levels of engagement and satisfaction. I found no real evidence to confirm my suspicion that you can overdo the ‘encouragement’.

The closest I came to it was a piece in HR Magazine a couple of months ago by Samantha Arnold from ETS:

“I have come across managers resorting to all sorts of tactics to make sure they achieve high response rates. The irony is that these managers are often the ones that have little interest in doing anything with the results…  to avoid it becoming a sideshow, we have advised our clients not to share response rate scores with their managers”.

Another interesting angle I came across was:

“… the fact that in some organisations employees choose not to complete the survey is important feedback information in its own right. We often find in organisations where there has historically been a lack of commitment to feedback, poor communications and a lack of resulting action that survey completion rates are the lowest.”

So presumably trying too hard to push participation may mask this natural inclination among some to not bother taking the survey, again rendering the feedback and data less valuable because it is papering over the cracks.

It strikes me that all you need to do is make sure that every member of staff knows about the survey, understands the importance of taking the opportunity to give their feedback, and has the opportunity to participate. Thereafter, if they want to participate they do, if they don’t they don’t.

And that’s fine because you’ll be getting the most reliable, authentic and untarnished feedback possible, and you can be sure when you roll in to action to address areas of concern that you will be focusing on all the right things.

Communication builds trust

Tony Hsieh is the kind of boss everyone wants. Since I first wrote about him in March 2010 I have followed his career with interest and I am a huge fan of his people-focused approach to running a business. The story of Zappos is the ultimate story of how corporate culture can drive commercial success.

Core value number 6 on a T shirtAt the heart of Zappos lie ten core values:

  1. Deliver WOW Through Service
  2. Embrace and Drive Change
  3. Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  5. Pursue Growth and Learning
  6. Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do More With Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble

As an Internal Communicator, number six is obviously my favourite. Zappos believe that open, honest communication is the best foundation for any relationship. They even put it on a T shirt.

They don’t need to spell out if they mean internal or external communications, because for Zappos they are one and the same. Zappos employee communications are conducted in public, in full view of their customers and fans.

On 6 June 2012 Tony Hsieh sent an email to Zappos staff about a very significant corporate development. At the same time he sent a link to the email to his 2.4m followers on Twitter and posted it on http://www.zappos.com.

Most companies sending this kind of all-staff email hit the send button and sit back, hold their breath and wait for a disgruntled employee to leak it to the press. Not Zappos.

It’s an interesting email. Not just because it demonstrates Zappos fusion of internal and external communications. It also contains some lovely pointers towards a corporate culture that has become legendary in employee engagement circles and shows that none of the lustre has been lost by the constraints of plc ownership since Amazon paid $1.1bn for the company in 2009.

I love the fact that Zappos don’t call their Executive Management Team “EMT”, “SMT”, or “ExCo”. No, Zappos call it FACT, after Fred ‘no title’ Mossler , Arun Rajan (CTO), Chris Nielsen (COO & CFO), and Tony Hsieh (CEO – he’s the one with “Zappos” tattooed on his head).

Plc’s have to be very careful about making foward-looking statements outside of the regulatory financial reporting regime. Most companies opt for an easy life and keep schtum. Zappos “create fun and a little weirdness” (core value 3) to ensure their staff get the picture:

As many of you know, we already are operating two physical warehouse buildings and will soon be out of room in those buildings due to our growth. As we started looking into the possibility of opening up a third warehouse building in Kentucky to hold our inventory, we realized that Amazon was already running 69 warehouses around the world. I’ve been *reminded* by our lawyers that I’m not allowed to make forward-looking statements because Amazon is a publicly traded company, so let me phrase things this way: In the next 10 years, if Amazon continues its rapid growth rate, they will be running over 69 gazillion warehouses across the entire universe.”

Despite being CEO of the world’s largest online shoe retailer, I don’t believe Tony Hsieh sees himself as a shoe seller. I think he sees his job as the architect and curator of a unique company culture. A culture where employee empowerment and happiness creates a very powerful virtuous circle where happy staff equals happy customers and happy customers equals even happier staff. And on it goes, leaving investors, shareholders, founders and owners very happy bunnies.

Tony Hsieh is the kind of boss everyone wants. Tony Hsieh is also the kind of boss every shareholder wants.

Gizzits

I have grappled with the complexities of gizzits for donkey’s years. Gizzits for those of you unfamiliar with the term are basically corporate freebies used externally for marketing purposes at trade shows, conferences and the like, and internally, typically to celebrate something.

According to ARRSEPedia, the font of all spurious knowledge for the British Army, the word gizzit derives from the traditional army habit of acquiring souvenirs whilst ‘abroad’. “That’s shiny, gizzit ‘ere!” so the story goes.

For military invasion read trade show. We’ve all seen them. Roughnecks marauding from stand to stand hunting down stress balls, garish ballpoints and shiny memory sticks with sadly inadequate memories. If they get really lucky, they track down the holy grail of trade show gizzits, the mobile phone deck chair.

Note my slightly dishonest use of the third person plural here. Admit it. We’ve all done it…

My real interest in the science of gizzitology is in the internal use of corporate gifts, where they attract greater levels of variance in terms of perceived disposability and value. By value, I don’t really mean financial value, for there is none. Unless of course you count the money saved by not buying them in the first place. No folks, the true value of a gizzit is measured in emotional equity. And this is where things get tricky.

I’ve never worked anywhere where your own branded merchandise is not highly prized. It’s amazing how much emotional value there is in a baseball cap, T shirt or pack of cards dished out, preferably with no strings attached. The road to gizzit nirvana is however strewn with potholes and dangerous bends. There is a very thin line between success and failure when you play with people’s emotions.

If you get it right, nothing beats the power of a gizzit to raise spirits. If you get it wrong, damp squibs and chocolate teapots spring to mind. The challenge is to make sure that the the internal use of gizzits is appropriate, proportionate, timely, on-brand, culturally acceptable, equitable and hits the gizzit-spot (let’s call it the g-spot) of every recipient.

If they are not dished out to everybody at the same time, the ‘have nots’ can get very uppity, even if they know it is on the way. So the logistics have to be spot on. If a particular team or location is earmarked for exclusive gizzitry, those left out will be unforgiving.

Perhaps the hardest thing is getting around the “one size fits all” issue. For example, there is often a bit of a divide between what a senior director would value versus the preference of a front-line customer service representative. Another trophy for the cabinet is great if you have a trophy cabinet. Or even a desk. To someone who hot-desks every day, this is unlikely to land as well. Closely aligned to this is cultural fit. Why would you give a USB memory stick to a work force that doesn’t use computers, or a crystal paperweight to a dynamic young paperless internet company?

So my questions are thus.

  • Are gizzits worth the time, effort and cost or should you consider other forms of internal recognition and celebration that are less problematic?

  • What is the best gizzit ever to land on your desk?

  • What is the worst, most inappropriate or lame gizzit you have ever been given?

Infographic Nirvana

I love a good infographic. I love the way they help to make sense of often quite complex data and information through very simple visual cues. They turn numbers into stories; and when you are innumerate like me that is a big deal. They are also brilliant at showing progression, growth, and history in an informative, engaging and sometimes witty way. Like any good story, they can touch your emotions in a way that numbers and data can’t. Well, for me anyway.

I particularly like the way that infographics tend to be non-linear. There are no pages to turn; you just keep scrolling down the screen revealing fresh content as you go. This is a very comfortable and familiar experience for digital natives, who can take in a lot of information very quickly this way.

One of my favourite examples of a good infographic design is this one created by www.kleptocracy.us to provide a visualisation of American debt. Setting politics aside for one moment, one can’t help but admire the way the artist has illustrated the scale of an almost unimaginable quantity of dollars.

I’m actually looking closely at the art of infographic design at the moment as I’d like to use this technique to illustrate the incredible 10 year history of the company I work for, combining internal corporate milestones with external customer facing highlights.

Rather than attempting to grab people’s attention with pages and pages of traditional text, I think a good infographic could tell our amazing story in a few moments. When you are competing for peoples’ attention against the pressures their day jobs, this is an attractive option.

Another increasing trend I have noticed is that of animated infographics. This is quite a cute example that charts the history of the iPhone. I think the music helps as well.


I haven’t yet come across any public examples of infographics being used by Internal Communicators. Given the benefits I have described, surely there must be companies out there using them to help staff digest complex organisational data?

What do you think?

Trust me, I’m a CEO

The essence of a great place to work is trust. Thirty years of experience working with the most successful organisations in the world leads the Great Place to Work Institute to conclude that the foundation of every great workplace is trust between employees and management.

In another interview with Erin Lieberman Moran of the Great Place To Work Institute, Mark Ragan recently asked about the role of social media today in Internal Communications. Erin’s response was that the best companies are using it to enhance and strengthen workplace relationships. She went on to say:

“In lousy workplaces, organisations are monitoring the blogs to make sure that there aren’t human resource violations. In high trust environments where leaders trust the people that work within the organisation, they are just letting those conversations continue because there is an understanding and an appreciation that by opening up those vehicles they have insight into what people are thinking and experiencing.”

My regular readers will not be surprised that I concur.

These conversations will still be happening. Employees with an axe to grind will still hold court in the coffee room or the corridor. It’s just that the leadership team won’t have the benefit of knowing about them nor the opportunity to engage with the issues.

Earlier this year, Giam Swiegers, CEO of Deloitte Australia gave a fascinating interview on the use of Yammer within his organisation. Among other things, it gives him the opportunity to personally engage with people out in the open, not only to challenge misconceptions but also to accept responsibility for organisational shortcomings and take speedy remedial action. It’s worth a watch if you are interested in this stuff.


It seems to me that this kind of leadership approach must make a positive contribution to the creation of a high trust environment in the workplace. I’d love to hear from any Deliotte people who could provide any insight into how much emotional credit Giam has managed to accumulate through his approach to Social Media.

Social Media is not everyone’s cup of tea and in my opinion it can only ever be part of a multi-channel approach to employee communications. In some respects the real value of encouraging staff to blog and contribute to cross functional discussions using tools like Yammer is as much symbolic as it is practical.

As long as they are trusted to do so without heavy policing and censorship.

Work must have value

I have studied employee engagement ever since I got into Internal Communications. That’s why we do it right? Never before have I been struck by the simplicity and poignancy of a single statement in all my reading on the subject:

“The engaged stay for what they can give. The disengaged stay for what they can get.”

I picked it up on Twitter via @adamparnes who had just blogged about his experience at a National Geographic forum he had attended which had been facilitated by Leadership Development consultants Blessing White. The trail led me to Blessing White’s 2011 Employee Engagement Report. Do yourself a favour – read it!

The concept of recognition is not new. Every study on employee engagement ever made will mention recognition as a key driver of positive behaviour. However, I haven’t seen many that focus on the value of work. Gallup touch on it in their 12 Elements of Great Management, where I recall the phrase “money without meaning is not enough compensation” however the context was more around working for a company that has a noble cause and a vision that inspires.

What I love about “The engaged stay for what they can give” is the focus on individual contribution. If you feel that your own endeavours add real value to the company and are contributing to its success your motivation levels will be sky high and you are likely to hang up pretty quickly next time that pesky recruiter calls.

On the contrary, no matter how much love and loyalty you feel towards your company, if the work you are being asked or allowed to do does not feel valuable, no amount of money, free lunches, great benefits, table football or sleeping pods will keep you there for too long. And if it does, that’s where the rot sets in.

Work must have meaning. It must have value. If the meaning and value disappears you begin to tread water. OK, you are still motivated by the rewards for doing that job and you still do your job. You even look busy a lot of the time. But the days drag on and your main focus becomes the clock on the wall. You tune out. Discretionary effort goes out of the window, and in no time your increasing disillusionment turns to bitterness and you begin to sap the energy of those around you.

It’s simple. The secret of driving employee engagement lies in matching the operational and strategic needs of the business with the individual skills, interests and aspirations of each employee so that everyone feels that the work they do has value.

This was beautifully illustrated in last week’s episode of Downton Abbey in the following exchange between Mrs Isobel Crawley and Lady Grantham:

“If I am not appreciated here I will seek some other place where I will make a difference. I mean it. I cannot operate where I am not valued. You must see that.”

Blimey – I never thought I’d end up quoting a popular period drama to make an intellectual point about employee engagement…

How do you make people laugh?

I’m a really funny guy. I’m not joking – I’m truly hilarious.

I have developed very successful strategies for making people laugh. I fully understand the dynamics of the chortle. When I tell a joke I deliver the key elements perfectly every time. Without fail.

I lay the foundations and set the scene so perfectly that when I deliver the punch line it has everyone laughing their heads off.  And if I don’t deploy the element of surprise, I’m a master at dropping in a spot of exaggeration or a beautifully observed piece of irony. Believe me, I really am very funny.

Convinced? No, of course you’re not.  You think I’m a bit of a twat who thinks he is funny and is clearly anything but.

The moral of my story? If you want to make people laugh, don’t keep telling them how funny you are, start telling jokes.

OK, let’s change the question a little. How do you make people feel engaged?

Can you see where I’m going with this?

If you want to make people feel engaged, don’t keep telling them what a great employer you are, start engaging them.

Precisely how you do that will differ from person to person, office to office, city to city, and country to country. You probably don’t want to start telling Jewish jokes in downtown Tel Aviv or Irish jokes in deepest Dublin.

However, there are some universal truths in employee engagement, like respect, trust, openness and recognition. So don’t keep telling people you are going to trust them, or treat them with respect. Just do it.

Q:  When is the worst time to have a heart attack?

A:  When it’s your go in a game of charades.