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Thursday, September 19, 2019

Corporate Commentary

5 Powerful Lessons in Employee Engagement from My Dream Job-Turned-Disaster

I was fresh out of school when I landed my dream job with a medical device company on the cutting edge of cancer treatment. Its software for intensity modulated radiation therapy dramatically improved patient outcomes with safer treatments that reduced side effects.

As the technical product specialist, I was passionate about delivering more effective treatments that literally saved people’s lives. It was extremely rewarding and invigorating to be on the front lines of innovation, having a direct impact on the industry and patient care.

We were a small company with so much potential, but it was clear our next phase of growth was only achievable through acquisition. You can imagine our excitement when we were acquired by the market leader in our space.

It was so uplifting, validating our work and its potential impact. We were thrilled with the prospect of how many more patients would benefit from our technology, now that we’d have the resources of a large, established provider in the industry behind us.

Until reality set in.

Our small, 35-person company was now part of a roster of 7,000. And, that introduced an entirely new—and overwhelming—set of challenges.

Where previously our battles had been against outside forces—competitors, the status quo, getting customers to take a chance on our technology—we at least felt like a team. We were unified, agile and passionate about helping our customers help patients.

Now, under the umbrella of this larger entity, we felt stifled. Our battles were now against internal forces: getting the company to care, to invest the resources we needed, to even listen to us and value what we were doing for patients as much as we did. It was demoralizing and frustrating. My energy and passion were quickly squashed by the fact that every request, every suggestion, every idea from our team fell on deaf ears. The product was not reaching as many patients as it could. We were hitting a brick wall. My dream job had become a disaster.

The problem was clear: despite their effort to prioritize employee engagement, this company just did not have the tools it needed to help their employees. There was no way to take the feedback they routinely asked us for and implement it into real solutions. It was pointless.

I realized: if this company with 7,000 employees and a $10 billion market cap can’t find the right tools to help their employees—even when they’re willing and able to spend millions—then we clearly need better tools.

So, my husband (now my co-founder) and I decided to build one.

Drawing on our previous background in user experience and expertise in user interface design, we took those failures in engagement and execution and turned them into the solution the market needed to fill the gap. In our former roles, if our software didn’t get the right information to do its job properly, patients suffered. We brought that same level of passion for data and software design to a saturated, yet remarkably underserved market, leveraging the lessons we learned the hard way to create a new employee engagement solution that actually engages employees.

In the process, we not only implemented critical engagement strategies into our software, but also into our own company. Here’s how you can, too.

  1. Ask for actionable input
    Our previous company was constantly asking us to provide feedback—through long, exhausting, 80-question surveys. They’d spend millions of dollars bringing in the executive team to examine the results, but that’s where it ended. The data didn’t capture our true experience. They asked questions that were too broad, and there was no way to tie responses to specific examples or situations.
    When asking for employee feedback, ask questions that are specific to both individuals and situations. Allow respondents to (anonymously) cite specific incidents, examples and the people involved. Don’t ask, “How would you rate your co-workers’ knowledge?” Instead ask, “How would you rate Fred’s knowledgeable in his field?” or “How would you rate Sally’s helpfulness?” This is a much clearer way to get to the bottom of issues.
  2. Democratize feedback
    Feedback must come from a 360-degree perspective in order to give you a true, accurate picture of the employee experience. If you only ask managers for input on their direct reports, you miss valuable insight on how those employees perform in cross-functional situations or teams.
    Perhaps even more important, a large part of employee experience is driven by relationships among co-workers. If you fail to gather that data, you could be missing huge gaps that uncover serious employee relationship issues driving low engagement.
  3. Capture quantifiable, trackable data.
    Certainly, you’ll want to hear about anecdotal incidents (both positive and negative) in order to get a clear picture of employee engagement and relationships. But without quantifiable, trackable data, it’s virtually impossible to identify trends and devise improvement strategies. For example, in one situation, my husband had to deliver some negative feedback to an employee on his team. The man refused to believe it and spent most of the interaction defending himself, insisting there was no way his teammates had these negative feelings about him.
    Having data from multiple sources provides irrefutable evidence and eliminates the he said/she said scenario. When you can demonstrate that issues are chronic and pervasive—”Actually, all 10 of your direct reports said that about you.”—it becomes hard to argue. This allows you to quickly get past the point of questioning the feedback and start making plans to correct the situation.
  4. Take action
    Gathering feedback from employees is pointless if you have no strategy for implementing it (when it makes sense to do so). In fact, continuously asking employees for feedback that goes nowhere is guaranteed to send your engagement into a downward spiral.
    Instead, get employees involved. Don’t just ask for their feedback about what’s wrong—ask them to participate in devising and implementing solutions. Not only are they more likely to provide genuine input when they know it won’t be ignored, but they’ll also be passionate advocates for implementing change when they were the catalyst for it.
  5. Train employees in providing negative feedback
    Giving negative feedback is hard, and no one likes to do it. There’s always the risk that you will hurt someone’s feelings, or they’ll take work-related feedback as a personal attack. But being able to deliver negative feedback is critical to improving performance, culture and engagement.

Start by providing evidence of the behavior through multiple perspectives so it’s clear the issue isn’t an isolated instance. Ask the individual about their perspective on the issue and ask them for suggestions on how they might improve. Then, once you’ve settled on some tactics, work together to devise a timeline for checking in to follow up and measure progress toward improvement with quantifiable data. When employees can see the results of their efforts to improve, it makes turning negative feedback into constructive criticism much easier.

If you’re concerned or unsatisfied with your company’s level of employee engagement—or worse, in the dark about it—the good news is, you don’t have to quit your job and start a new company to fix it. By implementing realistic, achievable strategies for soliciting and acting on quantifiable employee feedback, it’s possible to right the ship in any organization.

Once your employees see that you take their input and suggestions seriously, and they can even lead the charge for improvement, the entire culture becomes a more agile, invigorating environment.


Written by Carley Childress, CEO of Macorva.

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Carley Childress
Carley Childress is the founder and CEO of Macorva. Macorva visualizes employee dynamics to improve employee engagement, so you can retain top talent and improve workplace culture. Carley Childress is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine.
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