Q&A: Theresa Welbourne on Employee Engagement Drivers

In yesterday's Leadership Lessons from Theresa Welbourne, the eePulse CEO and USC Center for Effective Organizations research professor addressed management, leadership and HR lessons learned from the recession. Here we conclude the two-part interview by looking at employee engagement and talent retention.

IMT recently spoke with Theresa Welbourne, founder, president and CEO of eePulse Inc., and research professor at the University of Southern California's Center for Effective Organizations. She is the editor-in-chief of the journal Human Resource Management.

In the second and final part of a two-part interview with Welbourne, she discusses talent retention, measuring/tracking employee engagement levels and what's wrong with using worker surveys as a measurement tool. (IMT published Part 1 of this interview yesterday.)

IMT: Employers today have a daunting task: focusing their limited resources toward re-engaging key talent in ways that will drive performance and profits. In lieu of financial compensation, how can small-business owners and other cash-strapped employers better engage — and retain — their top talent? What practical steps can managers take to improve employee engagement?

TW: In a study that I did on rewards, we asked employees what they valued most. We included things like cash bonuses, training programs and increases to base pay, benefits, bonuses, etc. We also added two items that are not usually included in these types of surveys: 1) "having my ideas implemented" and 2) "presenting my ideas to management."

In the results, across all industries, among all different types of employees, those two questions topped the list. Cash was No. 3.

The moral of the story is that you can engage and retain people by asking them for help. The biggest gains come not from a once-a-year process for engaging employees in conversations, but in implementing systematic programs that allow employees to share the knowledge they obtain with decision makers.

I use the term "data and dialogue driven leadership" to describe a set of practices that rally managers and leaders to talk to employees using data collected from employees. The data can be obtained via interviews, surveys or employee groups that gather data in some systematic manner. The discipline of data and dialogue helps energize employees because they know they are important to the organization being successful.

IMT: When addressing employee morale, satisfaction and retention, knowing what disenchants workers in their jobs is half the battle. To gain accurate information about employee engagement, employers must be able to measure it. What are the most reliable ways organizations can track and evaluate worker engagement?

TW: The easy answer is to run out and do an employee engagement survey. The problem with this solution, even though it is very popular, is that engagement is a generic term that does not necessarily lead to improved performance. An organization needs to answer the "engaged in what?" question before doing anything. For example, employees can be very engaged in baking cookies all day, but if the employer is not a bakery, this activity will not lead to stronger performance.

The first step is to determine what the leadership team needs employees to be engaged in to drive success. Today, many organizations are asking employees to go "above and beyond" when employees are in a situation where they can't even get their jobs done. Therefore, employers should start with a realistic engagement exercise, linking engagement with the firm's strategy. I use a role-based approach to this exercise, as it provides a generic way to help organizations think through the activity groupings that they need from employees.

And in the discussion, employers must talk about what core job activities will go away if they expect other types of work. We can't keep piling more and more tasks onto managers and employees and expect positive outcomes.

The steps are as follows: 1) discuss realistic employee engagement goals with leaders; these goals should be focused on the firm's objectives for the next six to 12 months; 2) survey leaders and managers only; 3) work with top teams to assure they are engaging in the right stuff; 4) roll out the process to all employees; and 5) keep on doing it because strategy changes, conversations need to continue.

IMT: How effective are employee surveys in evaluating workplace issues? Are there certain factors that cannot be measured with current methods/tools? What are some alternative ways employers can find out what really matters to their staff?

TW: Surveys are only as good as what you do with the data. Data and dialogue together drive action, which then affects business results. As such, when I think about surveys, I start with what results an organization wants to achieve, then I work backwards. If you need a given result, then what action must be taken? At this stage, we are developing hypotheses, or thinking strategically about the linkage between action and results. When I understand the action that is needed, then I move to the conversation or dialogue that is likely to lead to the action. Only then, when I have a very good sense of action needed, do I move to a survey.

An example:

Result: Company needs to improve customer service in order to drive sales.

Action: Customer service representatives (CSRs) need to give better advice.

Dialogue: CSRs and their managers need to talk about the work; they need to discuss what knowledge is needed for the employees to be more successful. The coach works with managers to help them engage in highly interactive conversations to focus on the right actions needed and to motivate employees to help drive the initiative.

Data: Run survey, ask CSRs how prepared they think they are to handle customer calls. Ask managers what ideas they have for improving the customer service process. Ask both to rate on a zero-to-100 point scale the degree to which they are providing the type of customer service needed.

Now, let's compare this to how it usually works: Someone in a company goes to a presentation and hears about a new survey that everyone else is using. In an effort to see how they are doing compared to the competition, they have employees do the survey and get benchmark data. The benchmarking exercise is based on data collected from peers over the last three years, resulting in a backwards comparison process. Therefore, the firm is setting goals not on the future, but on what their competition did in the past. Managers are given data that has little meaning to them; they are not motivated to take action.

Data and dialogue can be effective when the data is received from surveys, interviews, focus groups, review of e-mail, responses to blogs and many other forms of communication. For success, data and dialogue must be paired.

Part 1 of IMT's interview with Welbourne was published yesterday.

Theresa Welbourne, Ph.D., is the founder, president and CEO of eePulse Inc., and research professor at the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California. She is the editor-in-chief of the journal Human Resource Management and author and lead researcher of the Leadership Pulse. She has more than 30 years' experience as a researcher and consultant in high-growth and high-change organizations.

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