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Employee Engagement Surveys – Not The Whole Story

I’m not against employee engagement surveys. I’m just not in favor or our over-reliance on them for an accurate picture of an organizational culture. Reading employee engagement surveys is like reading a newspaper or watching the news. It’s interesting, there’s an element of truth in them, but it’s not the whole picture. It’s more of a photograph, a small spectrum of what’s actually happening. Surveys turn your organization into a noun, while conversations make culture a verb, a living breathing entity. Surveys give you a sense of what’s going on, but you always have to go further if you want an accurate picture. Here are some suggestions for using surveys more effectively and appropriately:

  1. Don’t use surveys to abdicate leadership. While thorough surveys provide excellent data and get you started with a snapshot of your culture, don’t rely on surveys alone to do the job. You also have to get out of your office, wander around, and be in touch with people. Ask them how they’re doing and what they need. Then listen to what they say. If you use the excuse that “people aren’t honest with you when you do that,” that’s a good indication you haven’t been out of your office enough to build trust. To be committed to culture, leaders need to be out of their office about half of the time or they just aren’t leading.
  2. Shorten your surveys. People are getting surveyed out. I’ve seen employees answer low because they are angry about having to do so many surveys! Dr. Theresa M. Welbourne (www.eepulse.com) is designing employee engagement and 360 Feedback surveys that take three minutes to complete. Dr. Welborne believes that you can get pretty much all the information you need in about three minutes. She might just be on to something.
  3. You don’t have to survey everyone to get an accurate picture. Television ratings are not determined by calling every single person watching TV. Pick a good cross section of people to survey and give the rest a break. Switch it up so you aren’t surveying the same people every time.
  4. Don’t mistake climate for culture. Climate is how people feel about the organization and their work (what you get from an employee engagement survey). Culture is what causes them to feel that way. Employee engagement surveys may tell you what the climate is, but they don’t necessarily get to the culture. Every culture has both the “visible” culture and the “real” culture. The real culture is what people talk about when the boss isn’t there. If you want to find out about the real culture, don’t send surveys to your employees. Send surveys to your employees’ spouses or best friends. Culture is measured by what people talk about when they get home from work. Ideally, we want to build a level of trust so people would have the same conversation whether the boss is there on not. You can only get the real culture by getting into the cafeteria and the hallways and listening to what’s going on, and more importantly, why it’s going on.
  5. Never ask a question about something you don’t know how to fix and you aren’t prepared to fix. Every survey question implies a promise that you are going to take action based on the answers you get. And if you break that promise, things will get ugly. I like Mark Murphy’s (Leadership IQ) experiment as an example of how this works. Tonight at home, make some popcorn. Then ask your spouse if they want some and when they say “yes” just ignore them. Now multiply that by a few thousand and you’ll see what we’re talking about. Don’t use surveys to abdicate leadership accountabilities. You must live your values, and have a way to ensure that this happens at every level of your organization. Your actions as leaders define your culture more than your value statements do. Actions really do speak louder than words. The goal is to align your actions and your value statements. The more you connect with people and really listen to what they say in a variety of ways, the greater your chances of bringing your claim and your reality into alignment.
  6. Remember that culture is a shared responsibility. Culture isn’t something that you do for or to people. Culture is something you create together. We institutionally deny the fact that each of us – through our perceptions and our choices – is actually creating the culture that we so enjoy complaining about. Deciding that I have co-created the world around me – and therefore I am the one to step into healing it – is the ultimate act of accountability. Check out my website www.irvinestone.ca/assessments for an instrument that assesses both the manager’s and the employee’s responsibility for creating a workplace worth working in – using and adapting the Gallup Q12 Employee Engagement Survey.

Personal Leadership – A Culture of One

Operational accountabilities are about what has to be done in an organization. Leadership accountabilities, on the other hand, are about how the work gets done. You have to take both into consideration if you want to build a great culture. Culture defines the how.

It is important to regularly assess how your people are achieving operational results, and it is just as important to regularly assess your culture with a Culture Inventory:

  • Are people clear about the values that are espoused – the way we do the work?
  • Are there clearly defined behaviors attached to each of the values so that the expectations of the how are explicit?
  • Are there clearly defined promises between the manager and the employee about what both are agreeing to?
  • Are there clearly defined support agreements, so everyone feels supported?
  • Are there clearly defined consequences – both positive and negative?
  • Is the follow-through clear, so that the agreements remain current and remain useful?

Just as it is good for a regular Culture Inventory, is it important to take a Character Inventory – an assessment of our own personal way we are at work and in the world. Similar to how an organization has a culture – a way of doing things, individuals also have a way.

Much emphasis in organizations is put on the what, and this is true with individuals as well. How many people do you know emphasize the achievements in their life but don’t pay attention to the kind of person they are becoming in the pursuit of these achievements? A Character Inventory assesses the kind of person you are – how you are living your life.

If you want to attract others, you must be attractive. Strong character demands that you shift from being the best in the world to being the best for the world, to strive not for what you can get, but what you can give, to endeavor not for what you can have or what you can do, but for who you can be. A job title, the letters behind your name, the size of your office, or your income are not measures of human worth. No success by the world’s standards will ever be enough to compensate for a lack of strong character.

It’s an act of caring to pause every so often and take an inventory of your character.

  • How are you doing in areas such as compassion, reliability, honesty, courage, prudence, contribution, and maturity?
  • Are you one person in public and another in private?
  • Do you focus as much on what kind of a person you are in the world as much as on what you want to achieve in the world?

Like a business that takes regular stock of its inventory, this is a fact-finding process. There can be blind spots to seeing yourself, so get feedback from the most important people in your life. Being a good person precedes being a good leader in any capacity.

Here’s a list of actions that demonstrate strength of character. See how you measure up with this list, or take the time to write your own list:

Let go of what you want.

Prudence is the common sense – that unfortunately is not so common any more – to live with what you can do without, and the ability to find joy in what is here. Every so often it’s good to surrender something we want, but don’t need. In a world that confuses wants with needs, debt continues to rise as character continues to erode. Practice living below your means, not getting everything you want, and finding freedom in enjoying what you have.

Do something difficult every day.

“Do the hard stuff first,” my mother used to say. The earlier in the day you get the difficult work done, the better you’ll feel about yourself and the rest of your day will improve. Whether it’s having a difficult conversation, getting some exercise, or taking a risk, character is built on the foundation of overcoming the natural tendency to take the course of least resistance.

Clean up after yourself.

Something eats away at your character when you sit in your mess or leave your messes for someone else to look after. And if you really want to experience character, walk through a park close to where you live and clean up garbage left behind by someone else.

Look beyond yourself.

Character means choosing service over self-interest. Character grows in the soil of concern for others and the commitment to act on that concern. We can all find ways to make life better for someone less fortunate than ourselves.

Spend less than you earn.

This is truly one of the best character habits you can develop. Spending less than you earn, whether it’s reflected in your home, your car, or the stuff you buy, is another version of prudence. The space you create in your life by doing so will give you freedom, renewed worth, and contentment that money will never buy.

Practice gratitude.

Gratitude is integral to strong character. It’s the antidote to the entitlement that contaminates character. Be an appreciator, rather than a depreciator, of everything that shows up in your life, including opportunities disguised as problems. What you appreciate, appreciates.

Before you criticize the culture you work in or the leaders of the culture, take a good look in the mirror. Leadership is about PRESENCE, not position. What kind of presence do you bring to your work? What kind of person are you? What is your “way” of being in the world? As a personal leader, you are a culture of one. Make it a daily practice to review your character in relation to your daily life, your friends, your acquaintances, and your work. Keep striving to be a better leader by being a better person. This is the real satisfaction and ultimate goal in life.

An Inspiring Learning Community of Leadership

I work with some absolutely amazing clients who so often inspire me. Such was the case this week as I spent two days with a group of principals and education leaders and their trustees from the St. Albert Protestant Schools Division.In my years of working with leaders, this was truly one of the most cohesive, trusting, authentic, caring, wise group of leaders than I have perhaps ever worked with. They had created a learning community together in a way I have never seen before.

No egos running things. Trustees, principals, assistant principals, and administrators learning together, supporting and caring about each other, mentoring each other, and holding each other accountable. You don’t get this kind of community in a workshop. You build it through years of dedicated commitment, intentional action, and amazing leadership. While there are great leaders everywhere, I was inspired by how this group collectively have come together to create a community in it’s truest sense.

These men and women get what education is about: creating a learning community, passion, character, and love. They get to the true spirit of the vital work of inspiring young people to meet the future with confidence and courage. During the two days I shared with them my vision of turning schools into a community. This community of leaders, imperfectly and humanly, are living this vision, as a “possibility of living into, not a standard to live up to…”

A community is a place where work is meaningful, not just menial, where you support people to be genuine contributors, not just “task doers,” where people are honestly valued, rather than used up, where you invite intentional conversations, not just superficial exchanges.

Communities are places where classrooms and hallways are transformed into a village, where there is a sense of belonging, shared vision, pride, ownership, and a commitment to service; where “command performance” is replaced with a bone deep commitment to courageously seek participation. Community is where paint-by-number management programs are replaced with a profound, yet simple regard for realness, honesty, and respect for the dignity of everyone, which in turn results in an authentic expression of the human spirit.

Fostering this kind of culture is akin to being a gardener. It can’t be legislated, controlled, coerced, or even motivated. No plants ever grow better because you demand that they do so or because you threaten them. Plants grow only when they have the right conditions and are given proper care. Creating the space and providing the proper nourishment for plants – and people as well – is a matter of continual investigation and vigilance.

Great leaders in education, as well as teachers, don’t often get much public recognition. And they don’t seek it. They’re too busy contributing to the lives of our future leaders. But I felt it was important to acknowledge and celebrate the success of this remarkable group of true professionals.  My hats off to you St. Albert Protestant School leaders. I am a better person for  having spent two days with you.

Transforming Sorrow Into Service: Effective Leadership In Action

“Only when we learn to be humble about ourselves, can we begin to respect others.” – Lindsay Leigh Kimmett

Lindsay Leigh Kimmett was an athlete, a leader, and a medical student with enormous potential to do great things in the world. But her life ended when, as a seat-belted passenger, she was tragically killed in a single car rollover in 2008. Lindsay’s parents were consumed with unimaginable sorrow at her untimely passing, “but in an attempt to move forward positively,” they were determined to carry on her legacy. Lindsay’s family and friends created the Lindsay Leigh Kimmett Memorial Foundation in honor of her memory.

To date, more than a million dollars has been invested into our community in Lindsay’s name across an array of initiatives, including Valedictorian Scholarships at all the three Cochrane high schools, The Dr. Lindsay Leigh Kimmett Prize in Emergency Medicine at the University of Calgary Medical School, and Lindsay’s Kids Minor Hockey and Ringette Sponsorships. Since her death, Lindsay’s family has also been very active in supporting Alberta’s distracted driving legislation and asks all to drive responsibly without distractions.

Effective leadership displays the willingness and capacity to turn sorrow and hardship into a gift that benefits others. Those who experience grief and have the courage to work with it and work through it, emerge a better person, enabling leadership qualities like perspective, patience, clarity, and empathy. Through learning to grieve in a healthy way, you open yourself to the capacity required to live in harmony and balance with one another and the earth.

Here are five ways to transform loss into a gift that benefits others:

  1. Make room to grieve – Let life touch you. Stop and allow grief to surface when it is present. Go to funerals. Allow yourself to cry. If you can, be with your pet when they die. Spend time with a dying relative or friend. Community can be built in tragedy. Don’t be afraid to grieve and share your grief with people you care about and who care about you. Allowing yourself to grieve enables you to accept loss as a part of the good life. Grieving is a lonely journey and should not be traveled alone. You may never “get over it,” but you can work through it – by acknowledging honestly what is happening inside you, and allowing your heart to open, both with yourself and with others.
  2. Let go of the anger – Anger is often born out of suffering, especially when someone or something has caused your loss. While it is part of the process of grief, unacknowledged anger or anger that festers inside, turns into the bitter poison of resentment. The antidote to anger? Name it. Claim it. Take responsibility for your reactions to life. Then have the courage to let it go. An indication of strong character is the courage to bear an injustice without a motive of revenge.
  3. Be willing to not know – Sometimes the best you can do is accept what is. Although it is human nature to seek control through answers, sometimes the answers simply aren’t there. Often you have to delete your need to understand. A sign of maturity is the courage to accept the vast and inevitable unknown of the human experience, and the willingness to let go of the need for complete comprehension.
  4. Let grief be your teacher – In the arduous journey of grief, if you pause every so often to open your heart and look within yourself, you will discover that the grief is guiding you to be a better person. While you may not be able to find your gifts in the immediacy of tragedy, keep an open mind to what life’s adversities can eventually teach you. Loss and subsequent grieving can foster, among other things, the ability to be compassionate, to connect more meaningfully with others, and to gain perspective and clarity about what matters most.
  5. Turn sorrow into service – In an effort to move forward constructively, find ways for your loss to fill a need in the world. While establishing a foundation was the Kimmitt’s way to transform grief into positive action, there are many ways you can make the world better through your loss. Being open to what grieving can teach you will amplify your ability to impact others through a stronger leadership presence.

I have deep admiration for what the Kimmett family has done for our community and beyond in light of their tragic loss. Their willingness to turn sorrow into service is authentic leadership in action. May their story inspire you to embrace the inevitable and at times seemingly unjust and often unanswerable tragedies of life as you stumble forward – with courage, conviction, and compassion – on the journey to being a better person and a better leader.