Organizations that undertake employee research simply to measure employee satisfaction are missing the point and wasting their money. Organizations that do not engage in employee research are surely wasting more.
Employee research provides essential information to propel improvement processes. And, acting on the voice of the employee is a key component in many successful organizational strategies. At its best, employee research stimulates a work environment in which employees are vigorously engaged in improving both the prosperity of the organization and their own employability. But beware the everyday obstacles found widely in organizations today - management overload, the perceived absence of a link to productivity, and organizational malaise. Strategies that accelerate action may ensure the return on investment in employee research.
Getting the elephants out of the living room
Employee research that draws on the collective wisdom of the workforce helps to uncover those areas which are not always obvious to key stakeholders involved in the day-to-day running of the business. It can take the ambiguity out of priority setting. Recently, we delivered the results of an employee survey which showed management, the union executive, and the employees at large, all agreeing on the critical but solvable shortcomings in the organization. On reflection, it was a recognition of the obvious. One executive said it was like finding an elephant in your living room. However, without taking the time to identify these problems and to get agreement on their removal, it is amazing how we can accommodate and work around those elephants.
Recognizing management paralysis
It used to be commonplace to criticize management for not listening to employees. Manufacturing and office employees alike would lament the fact that they checked their brains at the company gates. This criticism is not heard as often today. More common is that management is listening but not responding - management paralysis.
This allegation is often warranted. Mid-level managers, in particular, find themselves on unsteady ground. Downsizing and the need to simultaneously address multiple and conflicting goals have made them hesitant to act. Many managers have been more effective at removing people than tasks. The rest are too tyrannized by overwork and fire-fighting to adequately address employee issues.
Indeed, managers often seem unaware of issues vital to the health of the organization. As if they are working in a room with dim lighting, managers often appear not to have a clear view of the challenges they are facing. Occasionally this occurs because the problems, or more importantly the solutions, span functional responsibilities.
Employee research typically provides a pan-organizational perspective. This valuable broad perspective is not typically within the sight lines of managers coping with increasingly demanding functional or departmental goals. Addressing the causes of management paralysis, therefore, goes a long way toward clarifying management's perceptions of the organization.
Employee research leads to higher productivity
Management overload is one source of paralysis. Another source comes from the mistaken notion that listening and responding to the voice of the employee is no more than a nice-to-do initiative. A manager at a world-class manufacturing facility once said to us that he would be happy to address employee satisfaction issues if we could show him that it would lead to increased production.
That used to be a tough assignment. Since the early 1950s, in study after study, organizational researchers failed to find a relationship between job satisfaction and productivity. More recently, mounting evidence has reversed that conclusion. In one of our own studies in the office equipment industry, we observed a positive relationship between customer retention and the satisfaction of employees interacting with the customer. …