10 Key Points to Win Executive Buy-In

Expressing the Merits of an Employee Engagement Survey

employee engagement survey executive buy-in

You’re serious about strengthening employee trust and engagement. Serious in your belief that involving employees in identifying barriers to productivity and innovation will measurably help your organization achieve business goals. You’re conversant with empirical studies and reports describing the financial and nonfinancial impact of employee engagement. But your leadership team, they’re not quite there yet. Here’s how to counter the 10 most common leadership objections to undertaking an employee engagement survey.

Limited for Time? Quick Scroll with Quick Read Points:

1. Bad Time to Survey

“Now is not a good time to conduct a survey (i.e. we’ve just had a lay-off). We’re not able to act on any survey findings (i.e. no time, no $). We should hold off on such an undertaking.”

POSITION: There may never be an ideal time to conduct a survey. Conversely, any time is a good time to start. By conducting a survey when times aren't necessarily great, our organization demonstrates openness to honest feedback. Sharing results, even if negative, demonstrates transparency. And implementing a follow-up process to engage employees and move the organization forward, demonstrates leadership.

It’s true, yes, to derive value from any survey process, leadership must commit to investing the resources necessary to effectively communicate, and to implement actionable, prioritized survey findings in a timely manner. So, before any survey process is introduced, our leadership team needs to understand and agree upon what level of dollar and people support can be invested in addressing an employee engagement survey process and actionable outcomes.

2. It Costs Too Much

“There’s no money in our budget for an employee engagement survey.”

POSITION: An engagement survey is an investment in our employees, in our customers, and in the internal and external reputation of our organization.  Surveys are an inexpensive investment relative to the return. They can range from as low as $25 per employee to $250 plus. The money for this can possibly be found in this year’s discretionary budget or we can plan now to include it in next year’s budget. The reality is, if we lose one key employee over the next year, the lost productivity and replacement cost of that one employee, alone, is greater than the cost of the survey.  If we’re able to reduce our OPEX by one per cent because of improved employee productivity, innovation, reduced absenteeism and reduced employee turnover, the savings will be far greater than our investment in an employee engagement survey. Use TalentMap’s ROI calculator for more insights.

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3. CEO Likes Surveys; CEO Just Doesn't Believe in Surveys.

POSITION: This may be a show-stopper if your CEO isn’t open to feedback from others. In many instances, however, in saying this the CEO is seeking reassurance before giving the ok. Reassurance can come from the following sources:

  1. Other trusted members of the executive team who voice their support for a survey.
  2. A trusted third-party survey partner who provides objective evidence that demonstrates the workability and value of a survey.
  3. The senior HR partner who understands and finds solutions to the CEO’s concerns.
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4. We Already Know What Employees Will Say

“We already know what people think and have no need for a survey.”

POSITION: Leaders often believe they’re getting open, honest, and full feedback from employees, but numerous studies suggest a different reality. Once an organization reaches a critical mass of 20 or more employees, several factors distort, dilute, and even stop information from reaching the leadership team. These include fear of repercussions, fear of hurt feelings, the broken telephone effect of information passing through multiple levels of management and changing form before reaching the CEO, ineffective listening, and a lack of comfort or knowledge around how to deliver feedback.

TalentMap’s Organizational Readiness Checklist (TORC) provides sound clues as to what is really happening in your organization.  If your CEO believes they know what people think, your TORC score should be low. But if the TORC score is high, it’s likely your CEO may not really understand the organization as well as supposed.

5. Lack of Control Over Results

What do we do if employees use the open-ended questions to deliver devastating and harsh personal

feedback directed at members of the executive? What do we do if employees rate functional leaders

and the overall organization poorly? Once we commit to sharing all results we lose all control.”

POSITION: It may be tempting to hold back certain information if it’s personally offensive or if results look bad for a specific group. It’s important though, to share findings openly for the following reasons:

  1. Transparency breeds trust. To strengthen or rekindle employee trust and engagement, share everything, no matter how bad or hurtful this may be. Open communication is a big first step towards plausibly demonstrating commitment and leadership.
  2. Whatever fear there is about sharing certain bits and pieces of feedback, the fact is, this information is probably already known and circulating among employees it's just not being shared uniformly or with the executive team.
  3. Employees are worthy of being trusted with all information. If something shared is outrageous or inappropriate, trust employees to feel equally put off.

If in the end, leadership doesn’t feel comfortable making the decision to share openly and honestly, then your organization should probably hold off on conducting a survey. Anything less than a survey that gets at root causes of issues will fail.

6. Leadership Issues

“If survey results identify areas where executives need to change, how do you ensure they ‘listen’ to this feedback and actually change?”

POSITION: Most engagement surveys do show that executives and their actions are a primary cause of low engagement. Executives must first see that engagement has a direct impact on productivity, retention, and innovation before they’ll take engagement survey results seriously. Even after you’ve convinced them that engagement has an impact, it’s harder to convince them that "they" are part of the problem. Remember executives are focused on money and business goals. The most effective way to get their attention is to demonstrate how business units with low engagement scores have weak business results and vice versa.

7. Prior Bad Experiences

“We tried doing an employee engagement survey before and results were disastrous. Leaders and employees distained the experience. We got nothing from this initiative.”

POSITION: It’s important to understand why prior experiences were bad. Were these a result of:

  1. Survey provider?
  2. Questions asked?
  3. Expectations?
  4. Survey process?

To achieve a successful survey outcome, it’s essential leaders know what they want to accomplish, and to design the survey it in such a way as to meet those expectations. Define some guiding principles (i.e. we will publish all results; good or bad). Agree upon expectations and goals (i.e. to act on two or three S.M.A.R.T. opportunities). And select a third-party survey provider who aligns with your culture and guiding principles, and has the proven ability to deliver on objectives.

8. Confidentiality

“Employees will think they’re unable to take the risk of being honest with feedback in case they’re identified.”

POSITION: If the survey is handled incorrectly, employees do have a legitimate concern. This concern can easily be addressed by:

  1. Using a trusted survey organization outside of your own to receive, analyze and report survey feedback, anonymously. This third-party approach will safeguard anonymity.
  2. Aggregating survey results where survey participants in any functional group (i.e. HR) number fewer than five; combine responses with those of another function (i.e.IT). With sufficient numbers, no one individual participant’s feedback can be determined with certainty.
  3. Communicating before, during and after the employee engagement survey to allay concerns. Use face-to-face meetings with leaders and employees, and via email. Communicate with intent. Face concerns head on. Address rumors and be open and transparent with employees. Properly done, communication will build employee trust and engagement, even before survey results are known and acted upon.

9. Fear of Reprisal

“Participants who are honest with their feedback or, leaders with low survey scores might believe they’ll be reprimanded.”

POSITION: Survey results are not intended to provide the means for punishing team leaders if scores and survey responses to open-ended questions are negative. Survey results are also not intended to provide the means to hunt down and punish employees, who in sharing their honest feelings, say things that are negative or hurtful. Period. Before undertaking an employee survey process this must.

  1. Be agreed to by the executive team
  2. Clarified with all leaders, to whom employees will look for guidance around participating honestly in any survey
  3. Stressed to all employees.

The intent of the employee engagement survey is to help address obstacles that are impeding engagement and productivity. Some of these obstacles will most likely relate to leadership styles, communication, and decision-making both at an individual and organizational leadership level. So long as leaders and employees understand the objective, leaders can become more receptive to feedback and use these insights effectively, and employees can increase their trust and willingness to share constructive feedback with leaders.

10. Engagement is Not a Priority

POSITION: Executives are relatively easy to understand. They care about dollars first followed by what they’re measured and rewarded on. They may say other things are important but, if they're not directly measured or rewarded on a factor it won't get much more than lip service. Executives are usually measured on corporate goals, their own personal goals or objectives, and other criteria built into their bonus formula. If you want your leadership team to genuinely care about engagement, you need to show a direct connection between lower engagement scores and something they’re measured and rewarded against. If you're bold, work with compensation to include engagement scores and improving engagement in performance and bonus criteria. If you do, the odds are high you’ll find an engaged executive reaching out and asking for your help on improving the employee experience in your organization.

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