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…A simple but accurate analogy. Organizations can collect all the feedback they want from their employees but unless they communicate and take action on that feedback, they will not see the results they hope to. It’s as simple as that.

In fact, in our experience, consistently failing to communicate and act on employee feedback can actually backfire. In addition to not seeing improvements, organizations that run employee surveys but fail to respond often create environments where…

  • Employees become skeptical of organizational surveys because they start to believe they are only driving the organization’s agenda
  • Employees are unwilling to risk providing candid and honest feedback (which is what organizations really need)
  • Employees become unwilling to respond to surveys in general and survey programs slowly die over time

If you want the full benefit of that gym membership you’ve invested in, you need to actually show up! Similarly, if you want to to see results from your Employee Experience (EX) program, you need to consistently communicate back to employees and act on their feedback.

The Qualities of Actionable Data

Once you’ve bought into the idea that feedback is useless unless acted upon, how do you make that feedback as actionable as possible? As we consult with organizations, design programs and surveys, and interpret the results with them, we’ve identified several consistent qualities of “actionable” employee feedback:

  • It’s honest!
  • It’s representative of the workforce or population
  • Survey items/questions are targeted and direct
  • Open-ended questions are specific
  • The feedback channels are as real-time as possible
  • Stakeholders have the right/appropriate access to the data
  • The data can be aggregated AND broken down for analysis

Beyond good item writing and survey design, here are a few tips on ways to achieve this. First, ensure clarity of the items and questions you are asking employees…read them aloud. Also, consider the possibility that each item in the survey “could” be an issue and ask yourself – “could/would we do anything in response to this?”. Also, don’t be afraid of open-ended questions. When specific, they are among the most valuable sources of information from employee surveys. For example, if employees tell you that they don’t have the training they need to be successful, ask what specific training they need!

Additionally, data should be collected and analyzed as quickly as possible, as employee perceptions and attitudes can change rapidly, especially in high-turnover industries. And it’s also critical to make sure that the data and insights are going to the right people – the people in the organization who CAN take action.

Who’s Responsible For Action Planning?

So who is responsible for taking action once you have all of this data? Simply put, everyone! Now depending on the feedback channel, only certain senior and HR leaders will have access to employee insights (e.g., exit survey data may or may not be distributed to an employee’s manager). But when it comes to programs like employee engagement, every manager in the organization should be able to see real-time data and act quickly in response to employee feedback.

Here’s a breakdown of how everyone can get involved to drive program impact:

Senior Leaders:

  • Understand and accept organization- and BU-level feedback
  • Communicate and champion action plans across the organization/BU

Managers:

  • Understand and accept team-level feedback
  • Create local action plans
  • Follow up with employees and monitor progress

Employees

  • Share their voices
  • Provide candid and actionable feedback
  • Take personal accountability over their own personal engagement levels

Action planning should take place at all levels of the company. A reminder: action planning is not just the job of HR. HR supports and equips operations—planning and execution are the jobs of managers. Local leaders may encounter issues that don’t exist at other levels of operation, therefore they need the power and data to affect local change.

Build Accountability and Buy-In for Action

Now it’s easy enough to tout the value and importance of acting on employee feedback, but how do you motivate leaders within your organization to actually do that? Once again, the best performing, employee-centric organizations exhibit the following patterns for success:

  • Senior leaders set the example
  • Managers participate in the process of selecting action plans (i.e., don’t just force managers to take certain actions)
  • All employees, even individual contributors, are encouraged to create their own personal action plans
  • Attract influential champions at different levels and share internal case studies
  • Communicate and advertise the results of action plans throughout the organization
  • Follow up with employees (e.g., follow up pulse surveys)
  • Use participation in action planning as a meaningful data point (e.g., managers who take communication and action seriously are probably some of your better natural leaders)

Success starts from the top. If the boss doesn’t care, then it’s unlikely those below him or her will. Also, be sure to involve managers in planning, as people are more likely to buy into a decision if they are part of the process. Offering coaching to managers can be a good investment in keeping them on-track and responsible for meaningful action. After all, employees CANNOT be held more accountable for improvement than their superiors.

And of course, it’s important for employees to know the reasoning behind actions taken, so when you communicate action plans make sure employees know these initiatives are a direct response to what they’ve said in surveys. This will help communicate the value of their input and encourage them to continue to provide feedback and be a part of the resulting goals and changes.

The Anatomy of a Good Action Plan

Simply put, good action plans are simple & digestible, easily accessible, widely available, and flexible over time. But remember, that every manager in the organization operates with different people management skills sets—you want to enable to most novice of managers to drive impact and change within their sphere of influence so in addition to giving them access to a feedback platform that has built-in tools, consider loading in specific content they can pull from, providing them additional readings, Forbes articles, and TED talks that are relevant. Qualtrics also offers expert-built guided action plans, associated with our core engagement survey. These enable managers with desired outcomes for each survey item, reflections and questions for managers to consider as they respond to a specific survey item, quick action advice to help managers take immediate action, best practices for adopting a new way of working that improves this item for managers and their teams, and additional resources around each survey item.

And if you remember nothing else from this article, remember this— the closer the action plan is tied to the actual data, the better it works.

Common Action Planning Missteps

So now we’ve laid out some things you should be doing but what are some of the potential pitfalls we see when action planning or synthesizing and acting on employee insights? These are the most common ones that we see in practice:

  • Score Chasing: This is a well-intended practice of compensating or setting formal targets for managers around employee survey scores. This is a very common but potentially very damaging practice. While this does encourage leaders to pay close attention to surveys scores, it also often creates unintended behaviors that compromise the data and create further distrust among employees and in extreme cases can actually detract from employee experience.
  • Relying only on low scoring items/ themes to prioritize action: How favorably or unfavorably employees respond to certain areas is indeed important. But this should not be the only factor you consider when prioritizing areas for action. For example, pay/ compensation is often the lowest scoring area in engagement surveys but we also know that other factors such as career advancement, job autonomy, diversity, and corporate social responsibility tend to more significantly impact job attitudes like engagement. In other words, use favorability as one data point but also consider the statistical impact of the item/ theme on engagement.
  • Forcing managers to act on certain areas: There are times when action plans need to be trickled down throughout an organization. But front-line managers also have important context for their teams specifically and will generally buy into action more when they have a say so into what they need to act on.
  • Focusing only on big, formal process changes: We often think about “action plans” as being massive changes that need to be made to a process or policy that exists. But this does not have to be the case. In many cases, action plans take the form of better or more frequent communication about specific topics. Small changes can make a big difference especially when it comes to the relationship between managers and their employees.
  • Focusing on too many actions at once: It’s tempting to want to fix every issue immediately. But it is very hard to focus on 4-5 things at once and do them well. This is especially true in very large organizations. In our experience, it’s better to hyper-focus on just a few things and do them really well than try to fix everything all at once.

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.”

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