Should you conduct an employee engagement survey in difficult times?

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It’s a question that many companies ask, particularly when they’re thinking about conducting an engagement survey for the first time. It reflects, I think, a natural desire to avoid seeking feedback when you’re concerned that something like a restructuring, a pay freeze or redundancies will have a negative impact on engagement. However, I’ve always thought that’s a rather dangerous approach. Far better to take a leaf out of Don Corleone’s book and insist on hearing bad news immediately. At least you can then act before employee disaffection begins to hit customer satisfaction or sales or some other important metric.

With that in mind, I was very interested to hear Alex Lewis, HR Director of BAE Systems talking last week about managing engagement in times of economic adversity. The thrust of his talk was that it is in difficult times that the organisation is closest to the employees’ personal life, and a focus on engagement is most vital. And he highlighted four key employee needs.

  1. People need to know where the business is going and what change will mean for them. So it’s important to deal with those concerns directly and ensure that the key strategic messages are being properly understood.
  2. People will seek out their leaders and look to them for confidence. Line managers are the lens through which people view their company; managers need to involve people in the change process and support them through it.
  3. People will want to be involved in working out solutions. Shared ownership will help them feel fully committed to making their solutions work.
  4. People will look for honesty and integrity. Integrity is the foundation on which trust is built. Therefore, building trust is vital and people will hold managers to what they have said. Trust grows when what is said is done.

These four needs are, in fact, the four enablers of engagement that emerged from the extensive research captured in the Engaging for Success report to government (also known as the MacLeod Report) – A strong strategic narrative, Engaging managers, Employee voice and Integrity. Taken together, they include many of the key ingredients of employee engagement.

Alex Lewis’s talk was a summary of the research carried out by one of the Engage for Success movement’s Research teams into managing engagement in adversity. That research suggests that Don Corleone was right: it’s important to get the bad news immediately. You can then start to help your people through the difficult times before engagement turns to disaffection and performance takes a dive.

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