Is There An Alternative To The Employee Engagement Survey?

Employee surveys have been around for a long time. The current terminology is “employee engagement survey.” Years ago we called them “employee opinion surveys.” The goal of these surveys is to improve the organization.

The macro process is almost identical in every organization. First, the survey is administered, which involves a campaign from HR to maximize participation. A campaign is necessary because employees generally don’t look forward to participating. The results are analyzed and presented to the company. Managers and executives generally don’t look forward to this step. It’s often painful, but it’s considered necessary for improvement. Then, based on the results, strategies are initiated to improve the organization as measured by the next survey, and then the cycle repeats.

Lately, I’m reading more and more articles pointing out that all this activity isn’t resulting in measurable organizational improvement. This is analogous to the current trend questioning the value of annual performance evaluations. Many organizations are demonstrating the courage to quit doing traditional performance evaluations. Perhaps we should question the value of these very costly employee engagement surveys. Appreciative Inquiry (AI) presents an attractive alternative to the current engagement survey strategy.

Here is a quotation from the Appreciative Inquiry page in Wikipedia: “Appreciative inquiry (AI) is a model for analysis, decision-making and the creation of strategic change, particularly within companies and other organizations. It was developed at Case Western Reserve University‘s department of organizational behavior, starting with a 1987 article by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva.”

Cooperrider and Srivastva recognized that the kinds of questions one asks control the kinds of answers one receives. Engagement survey questions typically focus on what’s wrong, asking employees to think about deficits, deficiencies and problems. This results in a certain snapshot of the culture, and not a very uplifting one. But is it an objective snapshot? What would happen, they wondered, if we asked a qualitatively different set of questions? What kind of snapshot would we get if we asked employees what’s right about the organization? What are our strengths? What are we proud of? What accounts for our most meaningful successes and high points?

Depending on the set of questions, you get two very different snapshots of the organization. To me, it doesn’t make sense to ask which is more accurate. They’re both accurate. To me, the important question is which is more helpful in bringing about meaningful improvement?

Vince Lombardi, legendary coach, answered that question years ago. He rejected the common wisdom that reviewing and analyzing unsuccessful plays was the best way to improve team performance. He realized that it was much more effective to analyze successful plays and think about how to create more of them. He was doing Appreciative Inquiry before there was a name for it.

The goal of this post is to make readers aware of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) and to encourage investigation and learning about how the application of AI can contribute to individual and organizational improvement.

Thanks for reading. As always, I welcome your thoughts.


Larry Sternberg

How Can You Improve Your Coaching ROI?

As a leader you’re responsible to help your direct reports improve their performance. A big part of that involves coaching. Unfortunately, the term “coaching” has taken on a negative connotation in many organizations. To mention that a person is receiving “coaching and counseling” is, sadly, not a good thing. That’s because “coaching and counseling” is now a euphemism for “disciplinary action”. This post is not about how to discipline.

Did you compete in sports when you were in school? You expected to receive coaching. You wanted to receive coaching. This post is about that kind of coaching, the kind of coaching that actually helps people improve their performance. Coaching requires an investment of time, effort and money. What practices give you the best ROI?

First, in order to improve someone’s performance you have to understand what you have to work with. Begin by learning the answers to these questions: What are that person’s strengths and weaknesses? What are his or her character traits? What do they naturally do well? Here’s a hint when assessing someone’s potential — there’s a difference between room for improvement and potential for improvement.

Counter intuitively, a person’s greatest potential for improvement lies in building on areas of strength. However, way too often coaching focuses on efforts to improve areas of weakness. Asking a person to perform behaviors they simply don’t have in their repertoire actually makes performance worse. Why? Because aptitude matters, that’s why.

For instance, if a person isn’t good at telling jokes, coaching them to tell a joke at the beginning of a speech won’t improve their performance. In all likelihood they’ll tell it poorly, people won’t laugh and it’ll make things worse. If you’re the coach here, you should ask yourself, “To what end do I want this person to tell a joke? What outcome will that accomplish?” Let’s assume the answer is, “To establish rapport with the audience.” A great coach will help the person identify a different way to establish rapport, an approach that involves behaviors they can do naturally. Find ways to work around weaknesses. Find ways to make weaknesses irrelevant.

Great coaches focus on specific recommendations rather than talking in generalities. For instance, instead of saying, “You have to be a better listener,” a great coach might say, “When the prospect is talking, don’t interrupt. Take notes if you can.”

Great coaches invest more time reviewing successful performances rather than reviewing failures. If you want to learn more about failure, study failure. If you want to learn more about success, study success.

Don’t confine your coaching feedback to annual or semi-annual reviews. Give people frequent, candid feedback. Coaching is an ongoing, every day responsibility. Don’t shy away from tough conversations.

Of course there’s much more to coaching than can be addressed in this brief post. But if you follow these five guidelines you’ll improve your coaching ROI.

  1. Understand what you have to work with. Don’t ask people for behaviors they don’t have in their repertoire.
  2. Focus on building strengths rather than eliminating weaknesses.
  3. Review successful performances to learn how to repeat those performances.
  4. Provide specific rather than general recommendations.
  5. Provide frequent, candid feedback in real time.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

When Is Kicking Butt A Good Idea?

Kicking butt is a widespread leadership practice that has stood the test of time. I think it’s a valuable tool to have in your repertoire, and like any tool you have to know how and when to use it. So kicking butt is a good idea – sometimes. As usual, I don’t think I have the definitive point of view about this, so I hope you share your thoughts.

First, let’s acknowledge that some people are natural butt-kickers, and some are not. It’s easy to know whether this comes naturally to you. You’ve been in a leadership role for a while, you’ve done it, it felt like the right thing to do, and it worked. If you’re very comfortable with this technique and you have no doubt you’ll use it again, then this post is for you.

If kicking butt is not a natural part of your leadership style, that’s okay. I advise you against trying to learn this technique or improve your use of it because there’s some aptitude involved. Focus on using other techniques (those that come naturally to you) to accomplish the same outcomes.

For you natural butt-kickers, let’s assume that your intent is to improve performance. With that worthwhile goal in mind there are two situations in which this tool can be very effective: 1) to punish poor performance after the fact, and 2) to motivate people, to create a sense of urgency.

If a person or team has performed poorly (way short of their capability), they’re disappointed, and they know you’re disappointed. Kicking butt brings this to closure and therefore allows you to move on. It feels appropriate to everyone. Once you’ve done this though, leave it behind. Don’t keep punishing them.

If a person or team is not demonstrating enough urgency kicking butt is also appropriate. This is the most easily identifiable situation in which to use this technique. However, this is not the only motivational technique. Too many leaders overuse it when other techniques might be even more effective.

It’s important to understand what kicking butt can accomplish and what it cannot. It can increase someone’s sense of urgency. It can make them try harder. It can increase their desire to perform better. But it cannot increase a person’s (or a team’s) level of skill or talent. Kicking butt cannot and will not increase their capability to perform better.

If a person or team is truly giving their best, this technique will fail.

It’s also important to understand that when it comes to motivation one size does not fit all. The technique of kicking butt might work well on you and on some people who report to you. But it won’t work for every person on your team. The best leaders are intentional about understanding and responding to the uniquenesses of each person on their team.

In conclusion, kicking butt can be a desirable technique to have in your repertoire. However, make sure you do it only for people who respond to that particular technique, and understand what you can and cannot accomplish by using it.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Who Should You Make Friends With At Work?

OK, the grammar of the title is terrible, but that’s the way I’d say it in conversation. Sometimes proper grammar feels a little pretentious to me.

Recently an associate forwarded to me the following request from a media outlet asking for comments on making friends at work. Here’s their request:

We are looking for people who can comment for an article about the people you should make friends with at work, and why. Who are the people who are important to your career? Who are the people who can help you be happy at work? Who are the ones who can help you or be someone you can rely on? We are looking for tips on how to identify these people as well as how to know what level of friendship you should have with your co-workers.

The requestor wants to know who and why. I think the “why” is most important, because once you know why you’d like to make friends with someone, the “who” follows. Do you make friends with someone because you want something from them? Would you tell them that? If not, you have a hidden agenda. You’re using them. That’s not my idea of friendship.

I’m not saying it’s wrong in any way to pursue a relationship with someone who can help you with your career or bring you other benefits. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I can bring you benefits x, y and z. And you can bring me benefits a, b, and c. Let’s start a relationship.” That might be a positive, mutually beneficial relationship, but it’s not a friendship. It’s a business deal.

Think about your current friends. Why did you become friends? Why does your friendship continue? Your answers likely are different than mine. Whatever your reasons are, why would they be different for people at work vs. people in your personal life?

Whether at work or in my personal life, here are some of my reasons:

  • The other person likes, values and appreciates me.
  • I admire the person.
  • I think I can help that person.
  • We have good chemistry.
  • The person has a good sense of humor and can at least tolerate mine.
  • I look forward to spending time with that person. We enjoy each other’s company.
  • I can be myself with that person.
  • We trust each other. We seek each other’s greatest good.
  • We’re loyal to each other. We can count on each other.
  • My situation requires me to work with or spend a lot of time with that person.

I could probably list more criteria, but you get the gist. When those criteria exist, I want to be that person’s friend whether we work together or not.

The requestor’s final question is what level of friendship should you have with your co-workers? My answer is: Do not place limits on the depth of your friendships with co-workers. The world is full of misguided thinking that passes for wisdom. People are taught not to get close with their co-workers or with their direct reports. Do not heed that advice. To read more on this topic, click here: Are You Getting Too Close To Your Employees?

What would your life be like if you worked every day with a group of good friends?

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

What’s The Best Gesture Of Recognition You’ve Ever Received?

A client recently asked me to discuss recognition programs, and I realized I believe that nurturing a culture of recognition, appreciation, and celebration is more impactful than implementing specific programs. For brevity, I’ll call this kind of culture an appreciative culture.

Think about the answer to the question in the title. Here’s a similar question: What’s the best gesture of recognition you’ve ever given? Were either one of these gestures the result of a program?

In cultivating an appreciative culture, you can start by focusing on the center your circle of influence – your own behavior. Make a personal commitment to express appreciation more frequently. Here are some inexpensive, easy ways to do this:

  • Say, “Thank you,” more often. Say it sincerely. What could be easier? After all these years, this is still number one.
  • Write a handwritten note. This takes about three minutes, on average. I’ve timed it in numerous classes. These are so valued people save them.
  • Walk a person into your supervisor’s office and tell your supervisor what they did that was so great.
  • Write a note and mail it to their home, so their family can read it.
  • Write a note to their parents. This is so unusual it really makes an impression.
  • Invest some one-on-one time with a top performer. Take them out for a cup of coffee.
  • If, and only if, the person likes public recognition, give them a round of applause.
  • Send cards to your direct reports on important days like birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, etc..
  • Go out after work or at lunch to informally celebrate individual or team successes.

Individualized recognition is the Gold Standard. Here’s a set of questions you can ask each of your direct reports, one-on-one:

  • What contributions/successes do you want to be recognized for?
  • When you accomplish something worthy of recognition, who do you want to know it?
  • What’s the best gesture of recognition you’ve ever received? Why was it the best?
  • What form of recognition is most meaningful to you?

Remember, if you ask these questions, the most important thing is to act on them.

One final piece of advice about individualizing recognition. If you’re buying a gift, buy something related to that individual’s personal interests and values.

Everything I’ve discussed, and everything you’ve thought about beyond what I’ve discussed, makes the recipient experience their significance as a human being – their significance to you and to the organization. This builds morale, motivation and engagement.

So go ahead and implement formal recognition programs, but don’t stop there. Nurture a culture of recognition, appreciation and celebration. There are no secrets about what to do or how to do it. You just have to do it.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear about your strategies and techniques for recognition and appreciation.

Larry Sternberg

Larry Sternberg’s 2014 Top Ten

Happy New Year! Several people have asked me to list my ten most viewed posts of 2014. Here’s the list, in order of popularity:

Do You Know How To Spot Potential?

How Can You Create A Sense of Urgency?

How Can You Make Your Company A Great Place To Work?

Are YOU The Cause Of Employee Disengagement?

Are You Getting Too Close To Your Employees?

How Do You Welcome New Team Members?

How Do You Motivate People After A Big Loss?

How Do You Shape An Organization Culture?

How Do You Respond To Suggestions?

How Do You Maintain Enthusiasm?

As we move into this new year, let’s have the wisdom to understand that we’ll experience both victory and loss, for there can be no victory without loss. Let’s embrace both with enthusiasm. Whatever your goals, pursue them with great vigor. Whatever your values, live them with deep integrity. Whatever your gifts, use them to make a difference. A year from today, as we look back on 2015, let’s be able to say that we endeavored well.

Thanks to my best friend, Pat Mene who taught me so much. Doctor, I miss you dearly. Old acquaintances are not forgotten. You did indeed endeavor well.

Thanks for reading. As usual I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg








Are You Struggling With Delegation? Do You Have Trouble Letting Go?

Recently I received an invitation (that is, a solicitation) to attend a seminar on the principles of effective delegation. The invitation targeted managers who are struggling with delegation, implying that they’ll delegate more if they learn more about the right way to do it. I think the hesitancy to delegate is about something more fundamental than the “how”. I think it’s about the “who”. That’s the topic of this post.

Newly promoted supervisors and managers often struggle with delegation. Previous to the promotion they were individual performers. They know they can perform certain tasks with excellence, but now they have to trust others to perform these tasks. This pushes many new managers way outside their comfort zones. You might be in this situation.

Certainly it will help to learn more about how to delegate, but it’s much more important to learn as much as possible about your people. Because identifying the right person is the most important aspect of delegation. And the right person is not only someone who will do the task with excellence, but also it’s someone you trust.

Build your plays around your players. First, think about who will do the task with excellence. The more you know about each of your people, the easier it will be to make this decision.

Do you know:

  • Their strengths and weaknesses?
  • What they’re passionate about?
  • What motivates them?
  • What their career goals are?
  • Whether they’ll find this assignment attractive and engaging?

If you know the answers to these questions, you’ll be able to determine whether this assignment is a good fit for them. If it’s a good fit, you’ll have confidence in their capability and motivation to perform with excellence.

In addition, you need to assess your personal relationship with that person. How close are you? Aside from the fit considerations, how much to you trust this person? This is a relationship issue. If trust is low, knowing more about how to delegate will not remove this barrier. If trust is low, ask yourself, “Why don’t I trust this person?” and, “Am I willing to work on building trust?” If you don’t trust this person, delegation will never go well.

Delegation always involves risk. No amount of knowledge about how to delegate will eliminate this risk. You must understand that mistakes will be made. Things will go wrong. But if you’ve delegated to the right people, you’ll find that they also so some things even better than you would have done. When it comes to delegation, that’s where the treasure is buried.

Growth always involves going outside your comfort zone. You might be apprehensive about delegating, but you don’t have to let that feeling control your behavior. Identify the right person and take a risk. Where would you be today if someone hadn’t taken a risk on you?

Thanks for reading. I have no doubt many readers have valuable advice about delegating. I’d love to hear from you.

Larry Sternberg

Alignment: Where Is The Goldilocks Zone?

Much has been written about the importance of alignment. But lately I’ve noticed that attaining alignment is more nuanced than we usually acknowledge. It’s more art than science. Too much alignment diminishes both commitment and creativity. In the extreme, you’ll get a dictatorship. Too little alignment diminishes focus and wastes productive energy. In the extreme you’ll get anarchy. Dictatorships can at least function. Anarchies cannot. So where’s the Goldilocks Zone? And how does a leader get people into that zone? That’s the art. As usual, I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some thoughts.

First, you staunchly insist on adherence to your core — your mission, vision and values. This is where it’s okay to use your power. But you’re always going to run into grey areas, situations where it’s not clear what’s the right thing to do. In these cases, before using your power, I suggest open discussion about the various options and how each one aligns with your core values. You might well not achieve alignment through these discussions. But when you do use your power, people who disagree will know that they’ve been heard. It’s usually not the leader’s decision that really bothers people, it’s the process. Transparency has immense value.

If a person frequently feels out of alignment with decisions at this level, if he frequently feels that leaders are not making the right decisions, he should seek another organization.

The more nuanced situations occur when you have a strategy or an outcome in mind, but your people aren’t convinced about it. You might use your power to say, essentially, “We’re going in this direction. I’m happy to discuss your concerns, but we’re moving forward on this.” You’ve made your position clear. You’ve set direction. After you’ve listened, there’s more you should do. You should ask for the order. “I know you have concerns, but please give this a chance. Please support this and we’ll see where it goes. If it doesn’t work, we’ll change it.” You’ve asked for alignment, even though the person has misgivings. At first, you’ll get compliance rather than commitment. Sometimes that’s the best you can do at that point in time.

A frequent variation on this occurs after your people have accepted the direction (perhaps not enthusiastically), and they aren’t in alignment about how to move forward. Of course, as the leader it’s your obligation to suggest an approach. But there will be times when people just don’t feel good about the approach. They don’t align. They might comply with your direction, but both their commitment and engagement are low. This is very much not the Goldilocks zone.

When you’re in this situation, I assure you it doesn’t feel good to them. The first thing you need to do is acknowledge that it doesn’t feel good to you either. You need to state your commitment to figuring out an approach they can support. You need to listen to them and make changes. And you need to keep making changes until you find something they’ll support. This can be frustrating for all involved. If you believe in your strategy, you need to have some intestinal fortitude. Acknowledge the frustration, stay committed and ask them to stay committed to figuring it out.

There are times when you’re better off finding a direction or an approach your people will voluntarily embrace, rather than forcing your ideas on them. You can’t use your power to push people into the Goldilocks zone. So here’s where the art comes in. Knowing when it’s time to stop pushing people in a certain direction and instead become aware of what direction they want to go. And embrace it. Align with them and see what happens. You might learn something.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Why Do Rational Arguments Fail?

Persuasion is an important element of leadership. Leaders in business, politics, and community service organizations are constantly persuading people (including employees) to get behind their ideas for creating a better future. Rational arguments fall short because our decisions and behavior are heavily influenced by emotions. This is why negative political campaigning is so pervasive. Fear is a very powerful motivator. It often overrides rational behavior. It might be distasteful, but it works.

Leadership is about improving the status quo, and improvement involves change. Rational arguments should be put forth, but expecting people to act rationally is folly. We must accept the central role played by emotions and use that knowledge to persuade people to voluntarily support our ideas.

In the absence of persuasion, by the way, a leader must resort to raw power. And the use of power will gain compliance, but not commitment. The more a leader resorts to power, the more she diminishes her legitimacy. It’s a short-term strategy.

Change always involves risks, and fear of the unknown is ever present. Part of the leader’s job is to en-courage her followers. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is moving forward despite the presence of fear. To en-courage is to motivate people to move forward — to take risks and move into the unknown.

A rational argument, a business case, provides justification, but it doesn’t create the energy necessary to move forward. A leader’s self-confidence and genuine caring attracts others. Her passion and determination are contagious. Her belief in the capability of her team is empowering.

Are you using your emotions to en-courage people to move forward despite their concerns and fears?

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Great Take Aways From GPTW 2014

I had the good fortune to attend the Great Place To Work (GPTW) Small and Medium Business Conference in Washington, D.C.. To see this year’s top fifty companies to work for, go to the Fortune Website by clicking here. The purpose of this post is to share some valuable takeaways. I could not attend every breakout session, but I can share lessons learned from the sessions I did attend.

Lori Perlstadt, U.S Managing Director, GPTW
Ms. Perlstadt helped us know that GPTW’s research shows that creating a great place to work is all about relationships, and she identified five key cultural elements:

  • Trust
  • Pride in one’s work and the organization’s work
  • Employees enjoy the people they work with
  • Great communication
  • Transparency

Organizations that continuously improve in these five elements will become better places to work.

Maria Proestou, President & CEO, DELTA Resources, Inc.
Ms. Proestou focused on workplace flexibility — enabling employees to work flexible schedules. In her organization a strong results orientation provides the foundation for flexible schedules. If an employee delivers the results for which he or she is accountable, then that employee is given a great deal of latitude about where and when he or she works. DELTA establishes detailed metrics to measure every important aspect of the deliverables so there is transparency about the employee’s success in fulfilling his or her responsibilities. Each employee is considered a special case, and the company goes to great lengths to create a flexible work plan that suites that employee’s unique situation.

This strategy increases customer satisfaction, increases employee satisfaction and loyalty, and reduces costs.

Marisa Stoltzfus, Senior Consultant at GPTW
Ms. Stoltzfus began her presentation by identifying some cultural commonalities among the top fifty companies:

  • Building a trusting work environment
  • Inclusiveness
  • Accessible leaders
  • Exemplary hiring practices
  • Fostering a fun work environment
  • Frequent celebrations of successes
  • Transparency
  • Fairness
  • Sincerely caring about employees as people

Any company that achieves excellence in these areas will be a great place to work. If you create intentional strategies to improve in even one or two of these areas, you’ll be a better organization.

Joe Chinn, Assistant City Manager, City of Rancho Cordova
Stacey Peterson, Chief People Officer, City of Rancho Cordova

The City of Rancho Cordova was the only government organization included in the top fifty best places to work. Mr. Chinn, and Ms. Peterson live the following principle: purpose moves people. They organize their employees and their work efforts around their mission. In addition, they emphasize empowerment. City employees are (astonishingly!) empowered to solve problems and respond to citizen needs immediately, which often eliminates red tape and significantly improves customer satisfaction. Their culture encourages creativity and innovation, and leaders make it safe for employees to try new approaches, understanding that not all of them will work. Furthermore, they encourage fun in the workplace through a variety of tactics.

Organizing around mission, empowering employees, making it safe to try creative, new approaches, and fostering fun will make any organization a better place to work.

Carrie Dieterle — Chief People Officer, Insomniac Games
Ms. Dieterle shared many great ideas about thriving in an environment of constant change. Here are just a few that resonated with me. She emphasized trust and transparency, two recurring themes in this conference. To improve in both areas, the CEO asks each employee about their ideas to improve the company. And he issues a communication called, “Daily Decisions” (Carrie, please forgive me if I didn’t get the name precisely right) to create a high level of transparency. Just one more idea I find powerful. Insomniac Games is very intentional about understanding each person’s passions and giving assignments and responsibilities that allow each person to tap into their passions.

Improving our efforts to solicit ideas from employees, to be more transparent about decisions, and getting better at enabling each employee to express his or her passions through their work will make any organization a better place to work.

Eric Mosely, CEO, Globoforce
Mr. Mosely emphasized the power of innovation, recognition, culture, relationships and trust. Again, we can see some recurring themes here. To foster innovation, his company conducts innovation days, which include a wonderful aspect of transparency. At one point in their process, certain employee ideas become finalists and senior leadership debates the merits of these ideas, with an open phone line so that all employees can listen to these conversations. That, ladies and gentlemen, is transparency. Globoforce is also world class at crowdsourcing recognition in their world-wide organization (that’s what they do for a living). Recognition awards account for a full five percent of their annual payroll.

Are we giving enough recognition? Is it the right kind of recognition? Is it timely? Improving recognition programs increases both performance and engagement. What not to like?

The ideas highlighted in the post represent only a fraction of the great ideas presented at the conference. You can find even more by clicking on the Fortune Website.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear what you do to make your organization a great place to work.

Larry Sternberg