This post is the first of four posts on the Qualtrics Employee Experience Masterclass.

HR experts and organizational psychologists will cite a myriad of “foundational” elements necessary for building great employee experience (EX) programs—census engagement surveys, pulse methods, touchpoints across the full lifecycle, real-time manager dashboards, among them. These are all critical components but when organizations fail to create a feedback-oriented culture, even the most well-intended EX programs struggle to gain traction.

So how do you build feedback-oriented culture?

In this article, we present common themes that have emerged from hundreds of client interactions and are designed to help you assess your own organization. Focusing on the following themes will help you drive meaningful changes that will serve as a strong foundation to building an impactful employee experience program.

Define Culture

While the term “culture” is used quite loosely in organizations today, actual organizational cultures greatly influence how employees experience the organization and work itself. Thus, cultures are critical to shaping HR analytics and people programs. When applied to building cultures that value and promote employee feedback, I like to think about culture in the way Edgar Schein describes it—in layers.

iceberg graphic

The visible aspects of culture are referred to as artifacts – the processes, tools, and behaviors that happen within your organization. Applied to employee listening, simply having an employee listening program is an artifact. While these are indeed “visible”, they’re not entirely representative of your organization’s culture. As you go a level deeper and think about the values, the strategies, and philosophies of your organization you start to get closer to defining your culture. However, even at this level, the goals and philosophies don’t always represent the true culture of the organization either.

And that’s where you need to unearth the underlying assumptions. These are the taken-for-granted behaviors (sometimes good and sometimes bad) that define an organization’s culture. You need to also account for these elements of your culture.

It’s at this bottom level that we typically find organizations identifying unique strengths, potential threats or challenges, and areas that help HR teams create the urgency and impetus for creating or improving their EX programs. These underlying assumptions shouldn’t be the sole driving force for a program but they can help organizations take a good look at their culture and identify the “why” behind their programs.

Create The Right Structure For Your Program

In addition to defining and understanding your organization’s culture, some transformation will inevitably be needed to build a feedback-oriented organizational culture. We see high-performing companies like Zillow, Whole Foods, and Quicken Loans critically assessing not just the technology or logistics of their program but structural elements that will drive success. Some of these include:

  • Creating an ongoing dialog between employees and leaders— Instead of building a program that captures feedback, great organizations think about how their EX programs can create a two-way, ongoing dialog at the moments that matter most to employees. In addition to collecting the voices of your employees, these should also send a message that the organization cares about and acts on employee feedback.
  • Focusing on marketing and communications— Great organizations understand that EX programs need to be communicated and marketed internally. When we ask our clients and prospects what they’re doing to share the results of their EX programs, many leaders admit that employees don’t know how their feedback is used. But great EX programs go beyond communicating the impact of the insights, they also create a brand around the program so that there is an ongoing expectation for using these insights.
  • Human-centered approach— I can’t stress enough the importance of thinking about your program as being personal for employees. You may have 2 million employees or you may have 2,000 but each of those individuals is human and comes to work hoping for and expecting a great experience. As you talk about and build your employee feedback program, be sure to maintain a human-centered focus. This can range from the timing of employee listening (does listening occur at times that matter to employees?) to the language used in the surveys (are surveys conversational?).

Define The Values Your Program Should Drive

The second layer of Edgar Schein’s culture model focuses on values. Before we launch full-scale EX programs, we encourage our customers to identify the values that really drive their EX programs. Each organization’s cultural values will necessarily differ but when we boil down the core values of organizations that consistently drive exceptional employee experiences, we see the 4 common themes:

  • Transparency: Transparency is about open sharing of results, action plans, and impact. Specifically, we encourage organizations to share both the good and the bad when it comes to employee feedback. Your employees are adults and they should be treated as such. Additionally, openly sharing the bad gives more credibility to “the good”.
  • Trust: Closely tied to transparency is trust. Trust manifests itself in employees feeling like they can provide candid feedback without repercussions and believing that something good will actually come from the feedback they took time to provide.
  • Accountability & empowerment: Organizations must hold managers and leaders accountable to accept and act on the data employees provide. However, organizations must also empower them to do so with the right tools, resources and support. However, I want to be very clear that “score chasing” or incentives for survey scores are NOT effective approaches to holding leaders accountable. In fact, these practices often backfire and damage employee experiences. It is much more effective to build compelling value propositions for leaders to take action, build strong support models for action, and monitor and support managers through communication and action.
  • Continuous improvement: EX programs should be agile and flexible to be relevant. Industries and organizations are changing faster than ever before and employees’ expectations and behaviors about work are much different than they were decades ago. This means that EX programs must also change. This means building a program that is flexible in the types of listening mechanisms used, the language and items used, the distribution mechanisms used to reach employees, the frequency/ cadence of measurement, etc.

Create Alignment Across Key Stakeholders

Last, you want to create alignment across key stakeholders to ensure that your program will succeed. Start by understanding each group of stakeholders. We do this with customers by sitting down and mapping out their perspectives, motivations and needs. Then we think about how we can tailor our approach to providing insights to and communicating with each group of stakeholders. Here are core stakeholder groups you’ll want to think about addressing within your organization:

  • Executive team
  • Senior HR staff
  • HRBPs
  • Managers
  • Employees

Of course, at the top of this alignment list is the executive team. Without executive sponsors and buy-in, it will be incredibly difficult, if not possible to maximize your EX program. So get executives involved early. Ask them to be a part of the EX program strategy and planning. Start first by understanding their business challenges and then think about which of those challenges can be solved or helped with access to employee insights. Next, move the conversation beyond scores and lead a discussion that talks about what the ideal employee experience looks like for your organization’s employees and then talk about how you align that “ideal” with the business outcomes you’re looking for.

Of course, another great in-road to executive alignment comes through business sponsors and EX champions. Let these people and leaders tell your story for you. Using these champions to help you communicate progress and build an ROI case will help you continuously exhibit the value of your program on an ongoing basis.

By clearly defining the culture of your organization, creating the right structure for your program’s success, clearly defining your organizational values, and driving alignment across key stakeholders, you can create the right atmosphere for a robust and best-in-class EX program.

If you’re interested in learning more about any of the topics above, tune in for our 4-part webinar series, “The Employee Experience Masterclass.”