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Your Employee Feedback Needs Standardized Questions


On October 30, 1935, the U.S. Army Air Corps held a flight competition at Wright Airfield in Dayton, Ohio. Airplane manufacturers showcased new long-range bombers, including Boeing’s much-anticipated Model 299. Piloted by Major Ployer P. Hill, the Boeing plane took off, climbed to three hundred feet, stalled, and crashed in a fiery explosion, killing two crew members, including Hill. Ultimately, the crash was attributed to pilot error; highly-skilled Hill had forgotten to release a new locking mechanism on the elevator and rudder controls. The airplane was branded “too complicated to fly,” and Boeing nearly went out of business as a result.

Photo credit to Historic Wings

As told in the book Checklist Manifesto, a group of test pilots solved for Boeing’s complexity by creating a simple checklist. With checklist in hand, the Model 299 went on to fly a total of 1.8 million miles without one accident.

So what does piloting an aircraft have to do with employee engagement? In both cases, science advanced to a point where failure may not be due to lack of available proven information, but rather the failure to consistently apply that information correctly to the situation at hand.

So when it comes to the science of engagement feedback, how do you consistently and correctly apply decades of research about human psychology into your workforce efforts without crashing and burning? While it might be tempting to craft your own questions based on the answers you’re curious to get, it might be helpful to emulate wise test pilots—with standardized questions that neutralize complexity into seemingly simple actions.

Standardized questions offer a way to get better.

Applying complex concepts to complex human beings can be overwhelming, even with the benefit of science. This is why even world-class surgeons benefit from checklists. The science of employee engagement has advanced significantly in recent years, thanks to the research of industry-leading organizational psychologists and human behavioral scientists, and backed by advanced technology for statistical analysis. One outcome has been assessments that reliably and consistently measure what they say they are going measure, sometimes called “valid” or “psychometrically valid.” These questions for assessing the psychological state of engagement extend beyond concepts like satisfaction or happiness, which may have little connection to the commitment and additional effort that leaders hope to bring out in their people. Removing a barrier to employee satisfaction won’t necessarily create an engaged workforce.

Standardized questions help track progress.

One of the criticisms of standardized questions is that they stifle the ability to learn new things. They’re not flexible or agile enough to accommodate the diverse and evolving demands of a modern workforce. Surprisingly, the truth here is counterintuitive—standardized questions enable more agility, not less.

The idea behind agility is to assess where you are, take action, re-assess, and then adjust. Therefore, a common measuring stick must exist before and after an action takes place, in order to reliably assess its impact. That’s the problem with using good questions haphazardly; you get a good snapshot, but no trendline to tell the story of what’s working and why.

Standardized questions ensure important issues aren’t overlooked.

Typically, when leaders want to ask their own questions, it’s because they have something specific in mind they want to know. This could stem from anything from the introduction of new core values to changes to benefits. Either way, they want to gauge how employees feel about something in particular.

Here’s the thing: asking how it’s going probably isn’t going to get you an honest answer because it’s a leading question. Employees will tell you what they think you want to hear, not always what you need to hear. You really don’t have much to gain aside from a false sense of validation in your efforts.

The way to overcome these obstacles is to employ standardized questions that assess the holistic employee experience. By looking at a range of drivers and conditions that influence the state of engagement, you gain a full picture of your workforce and a better sense of how to meaningfully improve their experiences. Once you’ve done a complete scan, only then does it make sense to hone in on key factors with what we call SmartPulse.

Standardized questions make it easier to ask.

Have you noticed that it’s easier to complete a workout when there’s a routine? A routine frees the mind from deciding what to do, so it can focus on how to get it done. Standard questions make it more likely that a team follows through on an assessment by removing the front-end friction of deciding what to ask. This debate has been known to delay or even completely sideline the best of intentions for obtaining employee feedback, as the executive team gets caught up with what questions to include.

Standardized questions prevent harm.

The benefits of creating your own survey questions often don’t outweigh the costs. Anyone who’s asked a question—and wasn’t prepared for the honest answers that followed—can attest to the possibility of a significant downside. Asking the wrong question (or asking the right question in the wrong way) has the potential to make issues worse and send a team or key leader into a tailspin. Asking what the employee population thinks about a certain topic can put issues on the radar of groups who become needlessly concerned.

Also, when employees are asked for feedback, they will watch to see if anything happens. Some leaders are so concerned about this they choose not to ask for feedback at all because they don’t feel ready to act. This is one of the driving reasons to employ an agile feedback system that uses quantitative inputs to frame requests for qualitative inputs. Standardized questions can act as a guardrail to prevent diversion and disaster.

Get truth you can act on.

Here at Emplify, we integrated the science of employee engagement into standardized questions. Executive teams work with us because we’ve combined best practices, research insights, and agile experimentation to create the most efficient path to figuring out where opportunities and blockers exist, and to help your people become more engaged and effective in their work.

Check out our latest Employee Engagement Trends and Indexes Report to learn more about asking the right questions to get the actionable insights you’re looking for.

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