2016 Election & Insights For Your People Engagement Strategy

By Paul Cortissoz

Employee Engagement Strategies Insights 2016 Election

The day after, the day after.

No matter which side of the election you were on- or not on- I think it is safe to say the country, and the world in general, was surprised.

I am not trying to take sides, inflame people or create a discussion on who is/should have been the next President. Your Facebook page or Twitter account is handling that quite well.

Nor am I trying to get everyone to “come together and unite”. These things take time- if at all- and it a choice people need to make individually.

Like you, I have spent the last couple of days trying to digest the change and understand how the outcome was arrived. Being a bit of a political junkie and HR geek, I also asked myself if there are any lessons to be learned for HR professionals.

I believe there is.

I know elections and politics are not a 1 to 1 correlation to engaging people at work. I am trying to draw parallels, and share some important lessons we can remind ourselves of as HR professionals.

Your engagement survey results do not tell the whole story

Engagement surveys in some ways are like polls.

Most companies have a survey mechanism and/or other ways to measure the engagement of their people. Comparatively speaking, these surveys are conducted infrequently vs. polls where it seems there was a new poll result everyday during the election cycle.

In election cycles we vote once. Your employees vote everyday. They vote by showing up- and how they show up. They vote in the discretionary effort they give- or not. They vote in the conversations they have with- and how they treat- their colleagues. They vote with how well they serve your customers. You see it ultimately in your business results.

Let’s be honest. The pollsters got it wrong. Yes, in the late days they reported the race was close and was in the “margin of error”, especially in the battleground states. Yet they whiffed on several states that were not supposed to even be close. They fell in love with- and over indexed on their data- reams and reams of it. They under indexed on insights- and the real sentiment of the population- not just in battleground states. Even if you subscribe to the theory that Trump supporters did not truthfully indicate their support in polls- the fact still remains that they missed. Pollsters will tell you polls are not absolute but statistically correct in their methods. Blah. Blah. Blah.

I have worked in several companies where we did engagement surveys. All with reputable survey providers. Lots of pretty data and bar charts- too much data actually. Year over year comparisons and heat maps of percentage point increases and decreases. Big data and then requests for sub data from the big data from senior leaders. More reports, bar graphs and charts. Lots of PowerPoint presentations. Scripting and re-scripting of communications. Action plans developed. Interim pulse surveys conducted until the next big survey. Rinse and repeat. You know the drill.

I had the privilege of working at one time with a very smart Chief Marketing Officer. Marketing people love their market research data as you know. Yet he believed that people will say one thing in a Nielsen survey, and act differently at the point of purchase. So instead of relying on the data, he hired market research firms to follow shoppers at the point of purchase to truly see what their behaviors were. What he discovered was that shoppers say one thing, and act differently in store. Brilliant.

The best way to gauge employee sentiment as we all know is to simply speak with people. In person. The old-fashioned way. At times it also made me question in some ways why we are surveying in the first place?  My insights came from conversations, not bar graphs.  It wasn’t even about the questions I asked. It was simply watching and listening. Wasn’t perfect. Wasn’t scientific. But it is was real.

I am not suggesting to stop engagement surveys- but don’t rely on, and fall in love with, your data.  

Get out there. Connect with people. Be with people in their environment, not just in engagement focus groups and meetings.

The media is biased- as an HR professional you can’t be

If there is one stance I will take about the election cycle- it is that the media is biased. Every network. You name it. Biased. People watch the channel with the message they want to hear. It gets ratings. Ratings get advertising dollars.

I have spent a lot of time over the past few months at my computer in my home office with the TV on the background. I channel surfed to see what different networks had to say. Objective journalism is almost dead. Only a few true journalists remain. Ones that report the news- ask the tough questions to both sides of the aisle- and look for real insights. Most are pundits, repeating talking points, injecting bias. Playing favorites. I place the reduction of civil discourse, and the divide in the country, at the feet of the media as much as politicians. I miss journalism.

To carry forward my analogy, one of the roles your HR team needs to play is the role of objective journalist. Reporting what is really happening. Asking the tough questions. Delivering truthful insights. Even if it is not what people want to hear.

Yet at the same time, HR is also responsible for the thought leadership and execution of strategies to increase engagement. Like a campaign manager. That can be a tricky line to walk. I have seen some HR professionals become pundits for their solutions- and therefore- are not objective. They became more focused on having the right solution, their solution. They were too invested in it- they can’t be wrong.

You need to be both the objective journalist and campaign manager.  Equally.  That means seeking and telling the truth- not about being right.  Setting the strategy and course correcting along the way.

Your senior management team can’t live in the “D.C.” bubble

The ivory tower syndrome. Corporate office vs the field. 30th floor vs the 3rd floor. D.C vs the “fly over states”.

No matter what side of the election you were on. There was a general repudiation on both sides of the “Washington elites”. That is why Trump won. That is why Bernie was so popular. That ultimately is one of the main reasons why Hillary lost.

People are fed up with politicians they perceive as self-interested and ineffective. Living in the “bubble”. This election cycle, including the primaries, was fueled more by populism than policy platforms. People are fed up with with the insider crowd and wanted change. There is a clear zeitgeist- on both sides.

Back to people engagement.

Your senior team in some ways are the politicians of your engagement strategy. They carry the message. They are also viewed as being ultimately responsible for the solution. Yes, everyone has an important role to play to drive engagement. However fair or unfair, right or wrong, your senior leaders are looked to by your employees to “fix it” more than anyone else.

Ensure they are not in a bubble, and truly understand what is driving engagement. Even if that means their own dysfunction.

Get them out there in their constituencies- in the field, on the 3rd floor. Listen. Understand. Demonstrate they can make effective changes. Can get the job done. Show they care and can be trusted. Not in words but through their actions.

As campaign manager- keep them focused, on point. Deliver insights and frame the strategy to win. As objective journalist- call it like is.  

I realize the full picture of what happened during this election cycle is not entirely summarized here.

What this election cycle did reinforce for me, is that simplest ideas are usually the most effective ones. The more we are out of touch, the less effective we are. The more we talk, the less we listen.

The more we are “right”, the less human we become.

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