Over the years, most organizations I’ve encountered have a top-down approach to their employee engagement survey process, which tends to do more damage than good. The belief that employees’ workplace experience is the responsibility of leadership may be rooted in the idea that employees cannot create change or improvement on their own. The problem is, it doesn’t work that way. Leadership cannot fix everything, this approach can result in employees constantly looking to someone else to make desired changes, thus robbing them of opportunities for growth.

The book Self-help, by Samuel Smiles was written in 1859, and greatly influenced the formation of the Toyota production system. The book focuses on how the working class came together as a community, and through persistence and self-discipline, took the initiative to help themselves achieve what they wanted out of life. Sakichi Toyoda, inventor and founder of Toyota, strongly believed in personal responsibility and the importance of improving both workplace efficiency and quality of life. Smiles’ book had such a powerful impact on the way Toyoda ran his company and treated his workers that his copy of the book is on display in the Toyota museum. Smiles’ writings eloquently highlight the importance of self-reliance, determination, and most importantly, self-education.

The tendency to make engagement survey follow-up a top down activity is, in part, to blame for the damaging outcomes that negatively affect workplace culture. Why does a top down approach produce a damaging outcome? Leaders often struggle to fully understand the employee-provided feedback, much less what needs to happen, to create real, meaningful change. The most common complaint is that the feedback seldom results in change, which actually damages employee engagement, and hurts work satisfaction. Who wants to be asked a question only to discover that there is little interest in the answer?

 TOYOTA MOTOR CORPORATION GLOBAL WEBSITE | 75 Years of TOYOTA | Part1 Chapter1 Section1 | Item 1. Sakichi Toyoda (toyota-global.com)

A Better Approach

So, if you’re not going to take a top down approach, what does a bottom-up response to survey feedback look like?

One option I’ve become a huge fan of is to have employee teams, with minimal leadership involvement, analyze results, prioritize areas of focus, and then make recommendations for improvement. When feasible, the teams can work with peer groups to implement the proposed changes once the recommendations have been reviewed or authorized. The role of leadership in this bottom-up approach is to empower the teams, and support positive changes wherever possible. Recommendations that rely on leadership should be a last resort used only when employee teams have exhausted all other options.

Recently, a general manager at a large, well-known construction company was discussing his view of the revised, bottom-up approach to addressing survey results. He commented that it had created a permanent impact on their workplace culture and, most notably, resulted in an increased understanding by the surveyed team members of what it really takes to create change. The two individuals who led the teams focused on targeted areas and made a permanent shift in the way they communicated with senior leadership. The experience gave them a bird’s eye view of collaborating as a team to better understand challenges and the effort it takes to address them. He commented, “it’s as if people believe that leadership has a magic wand that can fix it all.” Since we don’t actually have a magic wand, it is crucial that employees are able to identify and respond to their own needs, which leads to the realization that the answers lie within themselves.

In the end, the goal is to increase engagement, and employees must be able to do that for themselves. Again, the role of leadership is simply to foster an environment that makes change possible, and provide whatever support that might be needed. Sometimes the most helpful thing leadership can do is help people realize that they have the ability to help themselves.

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