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How to Achieve the Impossible in Business with Employee Surveys

I live in an area of the country that rarely sees snow. As I am writing this it is the early part of winter and the holidays are only a few weeks behind us. For quite some time before Christmas, a chief meteorologist on a major network kept saying “There is absolutely no way we will have a white Christmas.” The odds were in his favor. There had been no white Christmas in the area in 83 years. Since the National Weather Service began keeping records in 1898, there had never been measurable snow here on Christmas Eve-flurries that amounted to a trace of snow-yes, but never any measurable snow. The National Weather Service defines a white Christmas as any December 25th with at least an inch of snow on the ground. It had been seven years since we had even seen a snowflake on Christmas Eve and prior to that, brief flurries had occurred only two other times on December 24th. So, when the chief meteorologist said that a white Christmas was impossible, I believed him.

We were both wrong.

Christmas Eve morning I was doing some last minute gift wrapping when my spouse came to inform me that snow was falling; and not just those small infrequent flakes that you have to strain to see when you look out the window, but huge flakes coming down in a flurry of white. I could scarcely believe it and in fact, remained skeptical that we would get any real accumulation. But, it just kept coming. It was not long until it was sticking to the grass and it began to accumulate…on everything! The official count at the airport was a total of three inches, but some places in the metropolitan area saw less (still, the minimum accumulation was one inch, enough to be considered a white Christmas), others more, as much as nine inches. The accumulation, combined with temperatures that remained quite cold resulted in…you guessed it-a white Christmas! While our snow normally disappears after a few hours of sun exposure, the Christmas Eve snow did not melt, but stayed around through Christmas. In some areas the snow remained until a few days after Christmas.

It was not until after our record snowfall that I learned something interesting from my neighbor. She had been watching the same meteorologist that I had watched. However, unlike me, who just accepted the pronouncement of a non-white Christmas, every time the meteorologist would say there was no possible way we would have a white Christmas she would say “All things are possible.” Turns out, she was right. I am not saying that my neighbor’s belief and statement caused the snow. However, she was correct in that things thought to be impossible can, and often do, come to pass.

Wouldn’t it be great if our businesses could achieve goals that seem impossible? Well, they can, but only if conditions are right.

Q: What conditions are necessary for achieving the impossible in business? A: First, you have to change the way you think. Yoram Wind, Colin Crook, and Robert Gunther, authors of The Power of Impossible Thinking: Transform the Business of Your Life and the Life of Your Business, state that if you can think impossible thoughts you can do impossible things. Unfortunately, sometimes our mental frameworks keep us from achievements. The authors state that corporate growth can be stunted by relying on traditional models of growth even when they are no longer effective. It is crucial that we find ways to keep our mental models relevant and to be able to decide when to change to a new model. Relevant mental models are important not just at the executive level, but throughout the organization. We rely on our employees to achieve our corporate goals, but they will not be successful if their mental models limit what they can achieve. Q: How can we know if our employees have attitudes and beliefs that are conducive to achieving the impossible? A: Conduct employee surveys. Conducting employee surveys is the only way to tap into powerful information that can mean the difference between the success and failure of your company. In an article published in the Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, Kyle Lundby, Kristofer Fenlason, and Shon Magnan review the research on linking employee and customer data to business performance and discovered a few important findings. First, studies have found a significant positive relationship between employee attitudes and productivity. Secondly, linking studies have shown that employee attitudes influence customers directly (in the case of a service organization) and indirectly (in the case of an organization that manufactures tangible goods). Thirdly, customer behaviors ultimately affect the organization’s financial outcomes. Why do we see these links between employees, customers, and profits? They are connected because employee attitudes about their jobs and the company are manifested in employee behavior, according to Lundby and colleagues. As customers see these behaviors, they make judgments about service quality and value. Perceptions of service quality and value then lead to financial performance. Thus, employee attitudes drive customer attitudes, which drive profit. Researchers have found support for these linkages in numerous studies in a diverse group of industries. Going back to employee surveys-in order for surveys to provide powerful information it is crucial that they are designed, deployed, and analyzed properly. Some employee surveys are too brief to provide the type of information needed in order to implement changes that will ultimately increase profits. The survey must cover a range of critical topics including corporate culture, communication, job satisfaction, morale, vision, and values, among others. That being said, it is equally important to keep the survey instrument concise so that it is not too long. Research has shown that when a survey instrument is too long, respondents can become bored. When this happens, you run the risk of people not fully reading the questions or worse, not reading them at all. For example, I’ve seen instruments with over 500 items; much too long for anyone to complete in one sitting. When an instrument is too long, the respondent may simply go down the list of items answering each in the same way or making patterns with their answers (such as “A, B, C, D, E,” repeat…). This means that the survey items measuring your topics must be well written in order to accurately and concisely measure each attitude of interest to you. While this may not sound difficult, it is more challenging than it seems and without the proper training, many mistakes tend to be made when writing survey items. Individuals with doctoral-level training in research methodology, especially in fields such as organizational psychology, are well-equipped to construct effective instruments. Many companies do not have individuals with such training in their employ, but fortunately it is very cost-effective to outsource this to a firm specializing in organizational research. If you want your company to accomplish what others perceive as impossible, you want to make sure that you go about it in the right way.

Now, let’s take a look at a company who believes in accomplishing the impossible. This company, a financial institution, realized the importance of having engaged employees to achieve their company objectives. In order to learn how their employees think, several years ago corporate executives decided to begin conducting annual employee surveys. They obtained the services of the National Business Research Institute (NBRI), a business research firm, to deploy their questionnaires and analyze their data. The firm provided the company with benchmarking data and also identified the key drivers of their employees’ perceptions. The first year’s results were nothing to brag about. Benchmarking analyses comparing their results with other institutions in their industry revealed that their results were average; they were exactly at the 50th percentile. Of course, no one strives to have an “average” company. The executives realized that their employees’ current attitudes were not conducive to achieving the impossible. Fortunately, knowledge of their employees’ drivers, the few items on the survey that were driving most of their employees’ attitudes, gave them the power they needed to implement change. Action was taken to improve the employees’ perceptions of these drivers. The next year saw some good improvement, but they still were not where they wanted to be. The financial company’s goal was to reach “stretch performance,” defined as an overall score at the 75th to 89th percentile. In order to achieve this goal, the company continued focusing on improving their employees’ perceptions of their drivers. The second survey revealed four root causes (drivers) of employee attitudes. These included:

  • The company has a logical organizational structure.
  • The degree of freedom I have to do my work is appropriate.
  • The company celebrates success.
  • The company is a good place to work.

These four items were driving 64% of their employees’ perceptions. This means that the company need only improve employee perceptions on these four items to experience a positive change in well over half of their survey items.

The third, and most recent, survey showed that the company’s efforts were yielding results. In just two years their overall score increased twelve percentiles! This is a statistically significant change, meaning that it was not by chance that their score improved. A topical analysis revealed amazing improvement. During the two-year time period 89% of their topics had steadily improved! These topics had improved as much as 20 percentiles! An analysis of the individual items revealed that 85% showed positive trends with some items improving as much as 25 percentiles!

This company is well on their way to meeting their goal of stretch performance. From there, the next goal is clear…Best In Class performance (the 90th percentile and above)! One thing that I would recommend to help this financial company meet these goals more quickly is to add customer surveys to their business research cycle. The linkage data clearly shows that it is the attitudes and behaviors of both employees and customers that influence profits, thus it makes sense to be knowledgeable of both groups if you want to achieve success.

If you would like to learn more about how NBRI can help you link employee and customer data in order to help your company achieve what outsiders may think is impossible, call us today at 800-756-6168.

By Cynthia K. S. Reed, Ph.D.

Organizational Psychologist

National Business Research Institute

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