Candies or Charcoal: What is Santa rating your engagement skills as?


You better watch out, you better not cry
Better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is comin’ to town
He’s making a list and checking it twice
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is comin’ to town

(Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town, Lonestar)

Children around the world are told all year round that if they misbehave, On Christmas day Santa will skip the candies and give them charcoal instead.When companies carry out their annual employee engagement surveys, some managers too get their lumps of charcoal. Surveys and studies comes back with the clear message that ‘People leave managers, not companies

Continue reading “Candies or Charcoal: What is Santa rating your engagement skills as?”

The one BIG idea for Employee Engagement in 2016!

Looking for one transformational idea for Employee Engagement in 2016? kfit: the Employee Health and Wellness platform from Kwench might be just what you are looking for!

I have always dreaded the last week of December. Christmas and New Year get-together and cake eating binges aside, there is always the dreaded mental review of another year gone by.

Ever since I landed up on the wrong side of 30, “Loose Weight” and “Exercise Regularly” have been on top or near top of my New Year Resolutions list and are always the items with a red cross against them in my year-end review. And somewhere along the year I would have inevitably invested in exercise gear that cost way more than I could afford, gym memberships that cost even more than the above mentioned exercise gear, and last year even a high-end water-proof watch – you know, for when I do the 25 laps in the pool. Several consecutive years of this pattern, and tens of thousands of Rupees later – I was fed up.

So I did what was seemed most obvious thing to do – I headed to the café and discussed my problem with others! (With a large latte and a chocolate donut on the side). Now what is interesting is that the story seemed to be pretty common across people I talked to. With all the stresses of just barely balancing daily work and family life, exercise and diet more often than not takes a back seat. Even drinking adequate amounts of water can be a challenge and the sugar in all the cups of coffee reflects pretty quickly on the waistline – if not worse! My colleagues at Kwench pretty much confirmed the challenges and so did a lot of our friends, family and even clients to whom we posed the question.

There is no doubt about it. The more we asked around the more it seemed that India Inc. has a serious health problem. We dug around for some data and this is what we found.





Well that’s just one part of the problem. You see from an organizational perspective, there is a lot at stake when the wellbeing of its workforce is not quite up to the mark. Loss of productivity due to more sick days, absenteeism and worse presenteeism.

If there is so much at stake for both the employee and the employer, why don’t Workplace Wellness programs work? Research on enterprise wellness programs by Guidespark reveals the top reasons why these programs don’t achieve the required results. While ~70% of employees feel that wellness is important, less than 10% actually take full advantage of such programs. Employees don’t participate or the end results are not as expected because they are too busy with work, the programs don’t suit their lifestyle or that they are not fully aware of what is on offer. Almost half of them felt that their biggest wellness challenge was insufficient activity followed by stress and poor nutrition.

Clearly any wellness initiative that hopes to succeed in the workplace must have a solution to all if not most of these issues.

One of the really cool things of working at Kwench is that problems are not left unattended for too long. Anything that touches on Employee Engagement obviously piques our interest. And if we think we can use technology to fix that problem them it excites us to no end.

We took the problem, pondered over it, did our homework, drew the sketches, put the engineers and designers into one big room to do their magic and created kfit – a comprehensive employee health and wellness platform that leverages the magic of social, gamification and mobility to help companies raise the health quotient of their workforce. kfit uses micro interventions coupled with technology to bring about positive and long lasting behavioral change.

Excited? We sure hope so, because we are very excited about the possibilities this platform holds in transforming the health and wellness landscape of Corporate India.

If you are looking for one BIG idea for your Employee Engagement program for 2016, then look no further.

If you want us to get in touch and explain more about how kfit can help transform your company’s wellness, please send us an enquiry.

If you want to know more, here is a quick guide to why this is the one BIG Idea, that you can download and it is titled (Surprise, Surprise): The One BIG Idea for Employee Engagement in 2016!



Oh and I am glad to say this year I won’t be putting a cross against “Loose Weight” and “Exercise Regularly” on my resolution list from Jan ’15.

2016 promises to be a whole new year – in more ways than one! Join us in changing the world – one step at a time!

PS: Reminder – Get in touch with us and we will be glad to talk about Employee Engagement Ideas for 2016!


Ongoing Conversations: Time to Bring Stay Interviews to the Fore

interview: /ˈɪntəvjuː/ noun
a meeting of people face to face, especially for consultation.

It is that time of the year. Annual performance appraisals are underway. The dreaded bell-curves will be created. Feedback sessions will be held with employees and then the resignations will come pouring in. And here is something that I have always found hilarious: when employees leave they are asked to attend an exit interview – or worse fill out a form – conducted by a junior employee who clearly would be just checking some boxes.

So lets see: there are multiple rounds of interviews when the employee applies to the company for a position. A single (perfunctory) round when the employee leaves. And here is ‘funny’ part – no “interviews” during her entire stint, which might run into decades! Somehow like a bad marriage the conversation just seems to dry up between the employee and her manager(s) till it really is too late.KwenchBlog_StayInterview_Banner1_

Most managers seem to be flummoxed when they get the resignation email (or instant message at times) from their team members. They seem to have no idea how the employee really felt about the work they were doing and often get upset about the resignation. Reactions range from ‘Nobody is indispensable’ to the nasty – refusing to accept the resignation, refusing to release the resource, making the exit of the employee as painful as possible citing pending projects that absolutely need to be completed.

The really smart managers avoid this situation by actively engaging their employees in a continuously ongoing conversation about their work, the organization, their engagement levels, challenges they face and everything else in between. That is, these managers conduct stay interviews regularly, get the pulse of what the employees are thinking and act on it!

First the Do-Not’s:

Do not couple with performance reviews: This is tempting and in fact many companies already do it;  but in my opinion it is not a good idea. An annual performance review in itself is an inefficient event and understandably stressful for both the employee and the manager – siince there would be a lot of ground to cover and there is bound to be differences of opinion of what did or did not happen in that time. Besides the employee is going to be focused on a single number – the rating on the bell curve and would hardly be giving honest and unbiased opinions on how they feel about work and the organization.

Do not outsource: It might be tempting to setup an online survey or tell HR to conduct the stay interviews, but that simply defeats the purpose. The primary objective of a stay interview is to determine the engagement level and immediate concerns of the team member – something that is best understood (and appreciated) by the immediate manager. Immediate supervisor(s) or someone higher up in the direct chain of command of the employee must conduct stay interviews.

Do not cherry-pick: There is no two ways about this. You have to talk to everyone in your team while doing the stay interviews. If you talk only to a select set of people – what ever be the criterion you decided, it will be perceived as discriminatory. If at this point you are wondering about how to talk to the 50 odd people reporting to you, then you have a different problem. If your span of control is more than 10, fix that first!



Now the Do’s:

Do look for what “makes ‘em tick”: Talk to everyone on your team, especially the high performers and try to ascertain attributes that make them successful. If the only common thing you can find is that they are all smokers and join you in the smoker’s zone, then you might want to take a deep look inwards. Jokes apart, find out what motivates the top performers about working for the company, how do they tackle the challenges that others are not able to, etc. This information is not only helpful for you to guide the less engaged employees but also useful when deciding new hires.

The magic of engagement does depend a lot on the personality match of the employee with the organizational culture. For example if the culture is in-your-face-aggressive then hiring the most qualified introvert won’t really help.

Do use the same questions: Ask everyone you are talking to the same set of questions. Only then will you be able to determine the differences across top performers and the rest and be able to help the others engage better.

Do wrap it up quickly: Don’t extend the exercise beyond a couple of weeks at maximum. If you take a few months to get around to talking to everyone lots of things would have changed – most of which would be out of your control. The stay interviews are like a snapshot of the present and it should be done quickly enough to be a true representation of what your team is thinking.

Do close the loop: The sales professionals live by the ABC mantra – Always Be Closing. Well it applies to you too – take the feedback you receive (directly and what the collated data tells you) seriously. The zone of engagement depends on the overlap of what the organization and the employee wants, and if your insights can help increase the overlap – everyone wins! (See the figure above)

The final word: Remember, stay interviews give you an opportunity to connect with and take genuine interest in what motivates and engages your team members. If you come across as just ticking off boxes, then a golden chance would be missed. You couldn’t do much worse than having a 1-hour conversation, take notes and then do absolutely nothing.



A Pareto Curveball on Employee Performance

ID-100176404I can’t feel nothing but this chain that binds me/Lost track of how far I’ve gone/ How far I’ve gone, how high I’ve climbed/On my back’s a sixty pound stone/ On my shoulder a half mile of line (The Rising, Bruce Springsteen)



Curveball: a slow or moderately fast baseball pitch thrown with spin to make it swerve downward and usually to the left when thrown from the right hand or to the right when thrown from the left hand

The “Bell-Curve” has been the mainstay of performance ratings for a very long time now. The distribution of employee performance is forced to align with the assumption that the organization has a few high performers, a few low performers and a vast majority clustering around the ‘average’ performance level. The whole idea of trying to fit everyone on to a ‘bell-curve’ is thus based on the assumption that performance in an organization tends towards ‘average’ – and I guess you can immediately spot the inherent problem with this assumption.

No organization would like to be configured to be average; yet, everything from compensation distribution to employee engagement strategies continues to be guided by this basic rule of thumb.

Popularity or Performance?

The rather uncomfortable question that needs to be asked is what is the core driver behind the performance evaluation numbers/ranking? Increasing the rewards substantially between the top performers and the rest raises the possibility of a vast majority being disgruntled. Rewarding a few much more than the rest poses challenges for traditional notions of fairness and equality in the workplace. Not making enough distinction removes the incentive to strive for better performance – especially for the outliers.

The crux of the issue lies in the question: what portion of the employees is actually driving the business results.

In an a series of interesting studies, involving 633,263 researchers, entertainers, politicians, and athletes – researchers Ernest O’Boyle Jr. and Herman Aguinis concluded that performance follows a power law distribution more closely than a Gaussian distribution. Put in other words – a few outliers are responsible for a majority of the output.

Pareto’s rule, a popular example of power law distribution – is often referred to as the “80-20 rule” i.e. 80% of the output can be attributed to 20% of the causes. Often subjected to abuse, this ‘rule’ still remains an easy way of summing up the conclusions of the power law distribution.

This insight has interesting challenges for how HR will deal with evaluating employee performance and contribution in the future.

In a traditional setup, the typical manager grapples with one or more of following while doing an evaluation:

  • Lack of clear quantifiable goals for the employee: Goal setting, an exercise often considered a mere formality and carried out with minimal participation from the employee and the manager comes back to haunt both when its time to evaluate performance.
  • Lack of a proper understanding of ground-realities: Managers are humans and are victims of their own perceptions. In the absence of intelligent means to capture customer and peer feedback combined with the previous point of incorrect or inadequate goal, managers often have an incorrect or skewed opinion of performance – especially in large teams.
  • Directive from HR to fit team into a bell curve: Small wavelets build up into a large wave, but small bells don’t make a big bell! The basic requirement that every team must have a Gaussian distribution borders on statistical absurdity – but continues to be a popular practice.
  • Fear of (increased) attrition: The team member has been working on the customer account for most of the year. The training is time consuming and team members take almost a month to start contributing. Too low a rating might increase attrition and the manager will need to find replacements – which will again need to be trained! Putting everyone near average is much safer from the manager’s perspective.

The ‘Bell-Curve’ to some extent lets the manager play-it-safe with his evaluations. A Power-Law assumption takes away that safety-net increasing emphasis on getting the evaluations spot-on. Put another way – the Gaussian assumption lets the organization be popularity focused and dilutes engagement, while the Power-Law assumption goes to the other extreme and focuses heavily on performance – posing a major challenge to established notions of engagement.

It might seem tempting to abandon the existing (flawed) system of force fitting employee performance ratings into a Bell-Curve in favour of a Power-Law distribution, but such a move would be fraught with potential pitfalls.

 Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done.

Remember that much of employee disengagement revolves around a sense of justice and fairness. The organization should not only do but also be seen as providing the required tools and facilities for the employee to succeed at the task, the organization should able to and also be seen as being able to correctly evaluate how the employee is performing at the task and then finally the organization should and also be seen as adequately recognizing the contribution made by the employee. Stumbling on one or all of these will lead to employee disengagement sooner or later.

In the power-law distribution a vast majority of the organization will be rated as “below average” The new assumption in no way implies that an organization should be only made up of only top performers – in the long run this is impractical for organizations of any size. The useful insight that can be gleaned from the new distribution is distinguishing between the employees who are vital and those who are not. Alarming as it may sound, when taking decisions of whom to retain or promote, making this distinction becomes a critical success factor.

Performance systems that can highlight top performers serve as powerful tools in the hands of HR and leadership of companies looking to engage with their employees and establish a culture of high performance. The impact of interventions based on inputs from a power-law trend of individual performances will expectedly be far higher and more meaningful compared to traditional systems. The challenge however will be eliminate bias in the evaluation – the impact of any such bias will be disproportionately higher in a Paretian distribution, with potentially disastrous consequences – a true curveball!

Acknowledgements and References: 

Image courtesy of

The bell curve is a myth – most people are actually underperformers, Michael Kelly, May 2012, BusinessInsider

The Best and the Rest: Revisiting the Norm of Normality of Individual Performance, HRMA Research Briefing.

We are what we read (or rather – a defense of fiction)

LadyReadingFiction_As we rolled out the all-new version of the Kwench Library in the Kwench Employee Engagement Platform over the weekend, I got thinking about the reading preferences of people. On kwench we have over 300k users who love to read all kinds of books. The dashboards offer an unparalleled insight into what “Corporate India” likes to read and sometimes data can prove popular perceptions wrong!

Now I am a big fan of fiction. My reading habits have been formed with spending countless hours poring over comics and then graduating to novels. Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, R.K.Narayan, Conan Doyle, Ayn Rand, Agatha Christie; Alistair MacLean all had a deep influence on me at various stages of my life. By the time Dan Brown, Rowling and Tolkien got published I was an adult, but I was more than happy to read those books too.

Interestingly some of my best friends can’t stand fiction. (Sort of puts a formidable challenge to the birds-of-a-feather theory) They recoil in horror when I try to regale them with the story of the latest blockbuster I finished. These puritans wouldn’t be caught dead with a well-thumbed novel. Only hard-bound business books please! (And I cringe before hiding my favourite copy of Fountainhead in my bag.)

Ever so often I wondered why these rather imaginative and intelligent professionals didn’t feel the thrill of being transported to another world. How can following Holmes or Poirot as they go about solving a murder not be exciting? Or how can the antics of Swami and his friends not transport the reader to a small town in pre-Independence India?

Interestingly I came across an article in the Sunday Review of the NYTimes – titled “How Reading Transforms Us”. Finally some research that seemed to back up what I had felt intuitively all these years. The effect fiction has on readers is very different from that of non-fiction. I had to read more. The rest of this post is essentially a short synopsis of the research by Maja Djikic et al. of the University of Toronto.

 Fictional Stories are Simulations designed to run not on computers but on minds”

Researchers have been pondering over the difference in the impact fiction and non-fiction has on readers. Bal and Veltkamp have proposed that fiction is ‘engaging and of emotional interest’. Put in other words, fiction is capable of generating emotions whereas non-fiction due to its informational nature might be engaging but not necessarily associated with emotions.

As all those of read fiction have experienced at some time or the other, readers of well-written (i.e. engaging) fictional stories often find themselves identifying with a character in the story. The degree of this is a function of the personality of the reader. In experiments on ‘identification’, researchers Kaufman and Libby concluded that instead of considering the events of the story from a neutral point of view, readers who are high in experience-taking ‘relinquish some of their own individuality’ and align with the mindset of the character in the story. (I have had friends back in university days act like Howard Roark after reading Fountainhead)

There are three primary kinds of simulations attributed to fiction:

Simulation of complexes of several processes: Stories involving relationships and social interactions is often based on complex interactions. It is the implicit understanding of those complexes that improve the reader’s appreciation of the situation (and hence the story). These ‘fictional simulations’ enable the reader to imagine possible situations and outcomes thereby belying the popular assumption that fiction is simply a description of some sort.

Simulation of empathy: When readers interact with an engaging story, they understand or empathize with the emotions of others.

In an experiment, researchers asked readers to read a Sherlock Holmes story and the control group was given a non-fiction piece of the same length that was based on newspaper reports. Interestingly the readers who were deeply involved in the Sherlock Holmes story became more empathetic while those who were less involved actually became less empathetic. Such effects were not seen in the control group.

The theory-of-mind: Researchers have proposed that an important aspect of reading fiction is to work out what the characters are feeling or thinking.

In a very interesting experiment, Speer et. al. had people read a short story while being scanned with a fMRI (a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine. When in the story the protagonist pulled a cord to turn on the light, the part of the reader’s brain associated with grasping objects was activated.

The very interesting observation that Djikic and others present is on the Change of Cognitive Empathy among the participants who had low ‘Openness’. There was a marked change in the empathy levels of those who have low openness and read a short story instead of an essay. The study also found that people who had been reading fiction for at least five years scored higher on the Interpersonal Reactivity Index.

To sum up it seems that those who read fiction are more responsive to social cues and are able to better empathize with others. Much more research needs to be done before we can start generalizing the conclusions.

But there is enough research to back up the calls for doing away with the stigma that reading fiction is merely a leisure activity. Reading fiction does contribute in cognitive development and encourages people to ‘place themselves in others shoes.’ Empathy towards others in the work place is one of the most important drivers of engagement. As the researchers point out in the conclusion of the paper – “Of course, we can understand others by interacting with them, but in real life misunderstanding often causes severe upsets. Fictional literature, in which we can misunderstand without suffering negative consequences, may be a gentler teacher.

Acknowledgements and References 

Image courtesy of

1. How Reading Transforms Us, Keith Oatley and Maja Djikic, Sunday Review, The New York Times, Dec 19, 2014. 

2. Reading Other Minds, Effects of literature on empathy, Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley and Mihnea C. Moldoveanu, University of Toronto

The ABC drivers of Intrinsic Motivation


Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist/Before they’re allowed to be free?/Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head/Pretending he just doesn’t see?/The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind/The answer is blowin’ in the wind. (Blowing in the Wind, Bob Dylan)

When we talk about Employee Engagement, the discussion is essentially about motivation. Engagement is in fact, at some level a consequence of Motivation – a sort of end state if you may.

When I meet senior executives in organizations, a common lament is that ‘quality’ talent is so difficult to find. And if it’s a group of executives, then you can be assured a passionate discussion on a broken education system, exorbitant pay packages offered by rival companies, attraction to go abroad etc. will ensue

I usually try to bring up the topic of motivation and get them to talk about it. It works sometimes, but sadly more often than not – it gets pooh-poohed. One (very smart) executive recently told me bluntly – ‘ the very act of accepting the job offer represents motivation to work here. Why should we need to keep providing additional motivation? Nobody was motivating me with badges and games all these years!’

The lady had a point. Her conclusion was erroneous but her premise was not totally incorrect.

Accepting the job offer represents the first step in a journey with the organization (and with everything else that comes as a part of the deal – managers, peers and the organizational culture.) When the job offer is taken up, chances are you have crossed the hygiene hurdle of adequate compensation, so I am not considering that in my discussion for the moment.

The paycheck only comes around once a month, but the employee has to deal with the effect of organizational culture, his peers and his managers every single minute that he is at work (and sometimes even when he is away).

In my opinion, there are three questions every executive should try to answer honestly

  • What intrinsic motivations can this candidate have to work with me?
  • What intrinsic motivations can this candidate have to work with my team?
  • What intrinsic motivations can this candidate have to work in my organization?

Note that I ask you think about the ‘intrinsic’ motivation. Compensation, Job role, Profile, Designation, Bonus is extrinsic motivations.. Focus on understanding the intrinsic motivations.

Take a few minutes and answer the three questions before reading further. Chances are when you answer each of these questions candidly; you will already know why you are not attracting top talent.

The ABC Drivers:

From all the literature I have pored over and the people (team members, managers and leaders) I have talked to, three main drivers of intrinsic motivation stand out – and I call them the ABC drivers of Intrinsic Motivation.

A: Achievement – A sense of accomplishment is a major driver for motivation for anyone who gets up in the morning and goes to work- taking time away from family and battling traffic. Its human nature – If you don’t have a constant sense of achievement, an idea of how you are contributing to the larger ‘story’, your engagement levels crash. Then you are doing ‘something’ with no clue ‘why’ you are doing it (a very common comment I hear!). Managers and leaders who want the best out of their team have a duty to set the context, explain how the tasks are contributing to a larger whole, give constant and constructive feedback and help provide a sense of accomplishment. If any of these pieces are missing, the engagement picture will remain incomplete for the employee.

At some level, your answer to Question 1 as a Manager should address this aspect. If you are a manger who is successful in providing your team members with a sense of achievement, they will always want to work with you!

B: Belief – Employees are highly motivated when they believe that the organization enforces a level playing field. They are motivated when they know that they have the authority to take a decision to solve issues. They are motivated when they know favoritism has no role in decisions taken, when team members are not promoted for being a ‘smoking buddy’ of the manager and when the organization stands behind the employee for doing the ‘right’ thing. A belief that the organization really cares about its stated mission and its employees really does wonders for employee motivation.

This driver should appear in your answer to Question 3 on why should someone want to work for your organization.

C: Camaraderie – Would you want to go to work in an organization where secrecy rules the roost? People in such organizations are afraid to share any information or to collaborate on projects because compensation and career progression depends on information asymmetry. Favoritism, Secrecy, Coteries, Mistrust drives a general feeling of apathy among the employees and engagement levels will be abysmally low. All the bonuses in the world can’t fix this problem.

A sense of camaraderie and teamwork is critical for driving engagement. Employees look forward to work when they get to work along side peers who support and empower them to achieve organizational goals.

This driver should appear in why people would want to work in your team. What kind of team-culture do you have? Do team members support each other? As a manager, do you pave the way for your teams to leverage everyone’s strength or do you ‘divide and rule’?


In Conclusion: If you want to increase employee engagement in your organization, then as managers and leaders – at some point, you will need to ponder over these three questions and see how aligned you are towards enabling the ABC intrinsic drivers among employees. And note that, these are in a way the only things that you need to do, but these should underpin all your thoughts, actions and efforts – otherwise everything you do will ring hollow in the long term.

DIY Employee Engagement Surveys (Part 2): Moving beyond Analysis Paralysis

AnalysisParalysis_Congratulations! You have completed the task of designing and rolling out the survey. It has been a hectic few days while you kept things going smoothly. Now the posters and mailers exhorting people to tell what they really feel are pulled down. The entire organization has stepped up and answered the questions diligently over the last few days.

You whistle a preppy tune as you walk into office and settle down in your chair to take a look at the data. But before that you see that you have a mail from the HR Head: ‘Congrats on getting the survey done, can’t wait to get our long pending Engagement issues fixed based on your insights. Meet me tomorrow.’

Your heart skips a beat.

Tomorrow? Actionable insights? In one day?

This is a common enough situation that once the first hill of designing and conducting a survey is done; senior executives want things to move fast. By the very act of conducting a survey, you have raised the expectations of both senior management and the employees that ‘something’ will be done – and fast.

And that is where you, the survey and data expert, have to separate the wheat from the chaff. (Don’t be perturbed; this is exactly how experts are crowned.)


Sidestepping Data Pukes:

It is fairly straightforward to check the statistical validation of your testable questions. Stats101 at your B-school (you were paying attention weren’t you?) or even some high-school background will suffice. (or dust off your old statistics text book and brush up on Mean, Median, Standard Deviations and Confidence Intervals)

The time consuming part is analyzing the responses to your open-ended questions. Some of the sites like Surveymonkey provide you with a decent free-text analysis in their paid version. There are tools available online that will easily crunch through a few MB of data and spit out what seems to be on top of people’s minds. At the extreme end if you are really on a shoestring budget, import free-text into an Excel sheet. Split Text to Columns, remove the ‘noisy’ words and do a frequency sort. Voila! You have a (pretty imperfect) list of top concerns – but at least you know where to start focusing your attention.

But that is hardly enough. Quite often this is where executives (and consultants) stumble. An elaborate report with responses to every question represented in fancy looking frequency distributions is dumped onto a bewildered HR Executive.

At the end of the day this report has little or no value. It is just a “data-puke” which represents text in graphical format and conveys little in terms of insights or actionable information.


Slice and Dice:

The real insights won’t come from presenting data, but from looking at it in intelligent ways. In a way your data’s ability to actually provide you with intelligent insights has a lot to do with how well you have thought through your ‘research questions’. (No shortcuts here, sorry!)

Some of the intelligent ways to look for insights is to segment the responses based on criterion that have bearing on engagement drivers.

  • A Generational Slice: Todays workforce is like a melting pot of seemingly entirely different eras. The ‘independence’ babies are retiring. Gen-X is moving into senior management roles. Gen-Y is starting to constitute a substantial chunk of the workforce in companies. Chances are there are substantial differences in the responses given by people in each of these cohorts – not just because of their past experiences, their understanding of how things are or should be, but also because of what motivates them, and their perception towards concepts like collaboration, team-work, transparency and organizational loyalty.

Any survey dashboard, which looks at the workforce as one homogenous entity, is going to get it wrong. Each generation needs a different shade of engagement actions for it to resonate and extracting that insight from your data can be a very useful first step.

  • Department/Geographical Dice: Senior management likes managers who deliver business results. But they may not be the ones who are good at engaging their teams. It might be possible to obtain short-term gains derived by driving teams hard and establishing an authoritarian management style, but it is sure to hurt in the long term. Your survey might just throw up such ‘surprises’ and a deep dive into data will uncover such managers. Such insights are priceless in helping top management correct employee engagement snafus brought about by perceptions.
  • A Gender cut: Very useful when used in the right way. Very easy to get it all wrong and spoil your entire analysis. Differences in Gender attitude towards the research questions have to be dealt with correctly. Validate the data and stick to what the data is actually saying. It is easy to let popular perceptions or personal beliefs cloud your judgment while presenting the analysis. But having a proper understanding of what each genders perception of issues are will go a long way in establishing a truly equal opportunity workplace – with facilities and processes that help employee rise to their true potential.

Beware of Pyrite:

These just three of the possible ‘cuts’ you can make of the data. I must warn you that this can be pretty addictive and there is a risk of getting carried away and starting to look at the data from all kind of angles. Yes, those angles exist, but always bear in mind that at the end of it, any data/insight you present should be actionable within a realistic time frame. Don’t let this become an exercise to show number crunching or graphing abilities.

Presenting an ‘insight’ on the lines ‘67% of Gen-Y employees are disengaged and more than 80% of those disengaged feel disconnected with their manager, feel that the company is not working on correct technologies, is not competitive in pay and doesn’t have adequate work-life balance’ is liable to get you strange looks.

The real nuggets of insight are what matter. Fool’s gold is easy to find, but can send everyone on a wild-goose chase with nothing to show for all the effort.


Walk the Talk:

You have done a survey; you have analyzed the data and now its time to commit to action. The absolute worst thing you could do is taking no action. The trust deficit inaction would create will be nearly impossible to overcome.

  • Communicate: Before setting up teams to plan and monitor actions, communicate the results and insights from the survey – and ensure that top management gets involved in talking about it. Mailers, Intranet blog posts, Town-hall meetings the options are endless. The channel does not matter, the message does. When senior leadership is seen standing up talking about issues that are affecting engagement, insights they have gathered and what they plan to do about it, employees are reassured that the exercise was not done to tick off some checkbox in a ‘Best Employer’ participation requirement.
  •  Plan and Communicate: One way to make sure most (if not all) bases are covered is to set up a team that will plan the action calendar and monitor progress. Ideally this team should have representatives from all relevant cohorts (Generational, Geographical, Departmental, Gender) and be lead by some one in senior management. (You will need some firepower to get things moving at times when the usual priorities of sales, costs, projects etc. take over.) To keep the motivation within the organization, establish a transparent communication process, which shows what is planned, when and how much has been achieved.
  •  Check the Pulse: The follow-up detailed survey should not be done for at-least a year because the impact of most initiatives will take a long time to be felt. But pulse surveys – short surveys covering a few key questions (essentially a subset of your larger survey) are very useful in getting a sense of what people are feeling about the actions being taken and also providing positive reinforcement that the organization is serious about making change. To the team in overseeing the changes, these surveys provide valuable input to do any necessary midcourse-correction. Pulse surveys should avoid new or differently worded questions or it will be difficult to compare with previously obtained results.


These guidelines should help you design, conduct and analyze an insightful survey. But remember that a survey is a tool, like the thermometer. You might use an old mercury based one to get an approximate feel or a new digital one to get double-digit accuracy.

What really matter are the diagnosis and the treatment that follows.



Image courtesy of

DIY Employee Engagement Surveys: Bootstrapping your way to insights. (Part 1)


Tell me what’s on your mind/ What you feel, what do you believe/What is inside you that makes you scream? / There’s something I need to say before you walk away – Tell Me, Failed Flight

The very first (and sometimes the only thing) most organizations do when they embark on the Employee Engagement journey is to conduct a survey. An in-depth and well designed organization wide survey still is the best way to capture what employees think and establish a baseline for current levels of engagement. (Till neuroscience catches up, but that’s still some way off)

Do you need an outside ‘expert’ to come do your survey? Maybe. But that depends on various factors.

How large and diverse is your organization? If you are a multinational spread across multiple countries with a large multicultural workforce, then maybe you are better off getting someone who truly knows his stuff. Getting an external source also usually gives you the added advantage of providing industry benchmarks.

Do you have resources to pull off a detailed survey? If you are a small or middle-sized organization, chances are your tech team is already stretched to the limit with work. There is always some new feature to roll out, some bug to fix. Telling them to setup the required tech for an employee engagement survey might not go down too well. On the other hand there are enough online resources that let you conduct your survey quite professionally with minimal effort. (Surveymonkey, Google Apps are two good options)

And the third (perhaps the most important question irrespective of size/budget/resources), do you know what to look for? Or rephrase it as do you know how to design a good survey?

To help answer that third question, let me dive a bit deeper into the two aspects of the survey that will determine its efficacy and ultimately determine ROI of years of effort and money that the company will put into Employee Engagement.


The first question that most people try to tackle is how many questions does one ask employees? Are 5 enough, or do we need 50? And then the next question pops up: About what all aspects do we ask questions on?

If these questions are popping into your head – Stop! You are making the mistake of “putting the cart before the horse”. Before thinking of questions, focus on the goal. This means thinking deep into what factors you think drive employee engagement in your organization and then determining what about those drivers are you seeking to establish from the survey.

Start off by capturing the broad and general goals of the survey. For example you might come up with something like “We want to discover how employees feel about: (a) Compensation (b) Work Life Balance (c) Management … and so on.

If you are a startup in growth mode, Work-Life balance may not be a smart thing to ask employee about. (Chances are very few of them have anything remotely close to a balance. It comes with the territory of a startup) You might be better off checking if employees feel they are aligned on the larger goal because that is a critical success factor. But if you are fifteen year old mid-sized family run firm whose top-management insists they still ‘think like a start-up’ then Work-Life balance might be definitely something you want to think about.

This is the first stage in designing your survey and likely will take a few days and multiple iterations to cover all areas that might have an impact on employee engagement in your organization.

And Well-Designed:

Once we establish the goals of the survey, we take a deep breath; get a big cup of our favourite brew (best to stick to coffee and tea at this point); roll up shirtsleeves and dive deep into designing the survey!

The next step is for you to establish the ‘research’ questions. These are not the actual questions, but the questions that you are seeking to answer. If you have established the goals of the study this part should be a snap.

There are essentially two types of questions (statistically speaking)

  • Testable Questions (or Close ended Questions): These are the questions, which can be eventually boiled down to a point that can be validated/answered by a statistical test. For example a check to establish any significant relationship between the age of an employee and engagement is a testable question.
  • Non-Testable Questions (or Open ended Questions): These on the other hand are, you guessed it, questions that cannot be answered by performing a statistical test on the responses. They are typically used to collect information for which there could be a multitude of responses – for example, ‘What are things employees would like changed to improve their productivity?’

A good survey will usually have a mix of both close-ended and open-ended questions. Too many close-ended questions risk rendering your survey presumptive, since you will have to come up with all options and won’t have a chance to capture ideas and opinions. Too many open-ended questions might make your analysis phase a nightmare since dealing with free-text is anything but easy when the survey has hundreds or thousands of respondents.

“… the null hypothesis is never proved or established, but is possibly disproved, in the course of experimentation. Every experiment may be said to exist only to give the facts a chance of disproving the null hypothesis.” R. A. Fisher

In the final stage before you start thinking of questions, you need to convert each of your ‘research’ questions into a null hypothesis.

A research question ‘Is there a (significant) relationship between active mentoring by seniors and employee engagement?’

becomes a research hypothesis just by flipping the order of the first two words, ‘There is a (significant) relationship between active mentoring by seniors and employee engagement.”

One cannot test a hypothesis in statistics, so we convert the research-hypothesis into a null hypothesis: “There is NO (significant) relationship between active mentoring by seniors and employee engagement”

The corresponding question in your survey might be “Do you feel more engaged with your job role when you are mentored by a senior resource?” and have a response option on a Likert Scale with Five or Seven levels. A typical five-level Likert item is as follows:

  • Strongly Disagree
  • Disagree
  • Neither Agree nor Disagree
  • Agree
  • Strongly Agree

You might choose to remove the “neutral” option (c), and create an even-point scale to use a “forced choice” method.

Ironing out the creases:

When you are done designing your survey, there is one least thing to be done before you unleash it on the organization – get rid of or correct the confusing statements in there. When you have been immersed in creating the survey for days together, you might put statements in the survey that might seem obvious to you but might be confusing to an employee. And in any decent sized organization there will be no chance to correct it once the survey is live.

There are essentially two ways you can pre-empt this (in the best possible way).

  • Use Statistics (again): Send out your survey to a sample of 30 or more people and see their responses (and feedback). Make changes to those areas of the survey that seem confusing to the respondents.
  • Take a hands-on approach: Select a few respondents who are representative of the various segments in your organization (Age/Gender/Role) and be present when they take the survey. This will enable them to ask you questions when they are stuck or unsure of something in the survey. Any question a respondent asks is a defect – in the final version there will be no opportunity for respondents to ask questions. You can then fix those issues right away with a tight feedback loop.

My, my, just look at the time:

One last point about your survey – keep note of the time people take on an average to complete your survey. 2-3 minutes seems to be the sweet spot. Anything more than that and chances are your respondents will get fatigued and just click through without really paying attention. Less is better – as long as your respondents don’t feel underwhelmed and start to wonder what just happened when the Thank-You page pops-up. (The perception of a shallow survey can do more damage to your employee engagement efforts than you assume)

These broad guidelines should help you design a thorough Employee Engagement (or any other) survey for your organization. In the next (and concluding) part on DIY Employee Engagement Surveys, I will talk about the post-survey analysis.

Estimating the cost of employee engagement: A Leader’s Guide.


You stole my money honey/You’re cold your blood’s stopped running/And know you’re buying your new life/Can’t help but find you funny: You Stole My Money Honey, Stereophonics

Companies worldwide agree that they are paying the price for having disengaged employees on their workforce. But what is often not clear is the extent of impact disengaged employees can have on the financials of the organization. Considering the heavy costs of disengagement (and investments supposedly made into employee engagement), this might seem pretty surprising to most. Not so, if you consider that the effect of disengagement is difficult to quantify at the least and nearly impossible to isolate at worst.

Can the CEO attribute the failure of a major product launch to disengagement? Maybe the market research got it wrong. Maybe the bugs were introduced because of the crunched timelines. Maybe the communication that went out didn’t convey the correct messaging. Maybe the products were not innovative enough – but was that due to caliber of the team or were they just not motivated enough to think things through? Maybe the business leader was overbearing with is ideas and no one cared enough to stand up to him?

As you can see, unlike clear financial and sales metrics or project timelines, identifying the extent of disengagement and its contribution to failure is a Herculean task. Herculean – Yes, Impossible? No.

Lets try and break down the costs in the typical areas where employee disengagement impacts the organization.


Part 1: The short-term/immediate impact

The productivity cost:

Research has concluded that engaged employees are about 31% more productive than their dissatisfied counterparts. Engaged employees will find ways to fix customer issues, reduce costs, improve processes that disengaged employees will not. When faced with a problem, chances are disengaged employees will throw the company rule book at you while engaged employees will go and find ways to fix it – sometimes using mechanisms that are not there in the rule book! (in a good way of course – in fact that is another impact covered in a later point)

So lets factor in (A) up-to a 31% productivity cost due to disengagement.


The sales topline impact:

According to CSO Insights’ Sales Compensation and Performance Management Study, at organizations where less than 50% of the salespeople were actively engaged, only 39% achieved their quota. This number almost doubled to 63% achieving their targets when 75% of the sales staff was engaged. A disengaged sales force might see issues ranging from macro market situation to a problem with the product, the sales collateral, the brand positioning – whereas engaged employees will figure out what it takes to get the sales. They won’t tell you the sales collateral is all wrong, they will talk to the marketing guys to point out exactly what is wrong and get it fixed.

So if you don’t have a full engaged sales force factor in (B) up-to 50% shortfall in sales targets being met.


The employee replacement cost:

Disengaged employees are more likely to quit – now that’s hardly news. What is astonishing is the fact that surveys shows they are 87% more likely to quit than their more engaged counterparts. Would you take a flight that is 87% likely to fail somewhere along the way?

So the organization gets saddled with the cost of replacing these employees at some point in time. The SHRM estimates that considering the costs of find a replacement, training, and productivity loss et al., the employee turnover costs in an organization ranges from 100-300% of the departing employees base salary.

Lets consider the midpoint and add that to the costs of disengagement (C) around 200% of the cumulative base salaries of employees who have quit.


Part 2: The medium-term impact


Higher healthcare costs

When the company workforce is engaged there are up-to 50% fewer accidents and up-to 41% lesser quality defects. Gallup research shows that the top 25% engaged workers in an organization in addition to having the fewer accidents; also have significantly lower health costs. If we consider the Gallup report on “The State of the American Workplace” as a reference, the Health-Related Cost to the Employer is almost 3 times for disengaged employees versus engaged ones ($11.7k vs 4.3k). Engaged employees have less days off due to illness and are more productive when they do show up at work.

The added healthcare costs have a direct impact on the bottom-line of the company and lets add that to the costs – (D) Up-to 3x the average healthcare costs when compared to engaged employees.


Repeat Business from Clients

It is a well established fact that the cost of selling to an existing customer is far lower that acquiring a new client. Research has now established a strong link between the levels of employee engagement and degree of customer satisfaction and loyalty. Customers are more likely to give repeat business (and recommend a business to others) if they have had a positive experience with the organization – and this experience is a combination of the product, the service and frontline staff interactions over a period of time.

Harter et. al, (in their 2009 meta-analysis) established that business units that were in the top quartile on their engagement scores, had customer ratings that were 12% higher than those in the bottom quartile.

So now lets add the cost of a lost client and the additional costs of acquiring new clients (just to replace lost business) to our list – (E) Additional costs due to need to acquire new clients to fill out lost business from existing clients.



Part 3: The long-term impact

 The very existence of the organization (or Cultural Rot)

As you can imagine, it is extremely difficult to gauge the financial impact of long-term impacts of disengagement. In fact any of the areas I mentioned prior could be seen as having both a short-term and long-term impact.

But the most troubling impact of a disengaged workforce (which can include the leadership) is the possibility of the organization itself ceasing to exist. Any one of the factors like losing clients, not innovating enough, not controlling costs, not having enough sales can balloon up to the point where things get uncontrollable and the organization cannot exist in its current form. It then becomes a target for acquisition (with the associated “right sizing”), or it runs afoul of regulators and the law (when leaders get desperate and no one cares enough to stop them or blow the whistle), or it just loses the battle in the market place and becomes a shadow of its former self (or just gives up the ghost)



In conclusion:

The costs of disengagement are anything but intangible. They are very real, very tangible and can be determined with a fair degree of accuracy – assuming the company has the will power to do so.

Determining the costs, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. The bigger question that the C-suite of an organization faces is – what next?

A true introspection about the causes of disengagement can throw up conclusions that are uncomfortable (at the very least) and need a serious investment of time and will power, more than money to set right. Sometimes the task seems so daunting that the most determined and ambitious of executives might give up even before starting. Building truly great organizations is not unlike nation building. You might have the vision, but if your employees aren’t on board that vision is going to remain just that – a vision. Just as you can’t hope to build an impressive structure if the foundation and the core are rotten, you can’t hope to build a great organization if your employees are disengaged.

The cost of disengagement in the long term?

Pretty much everything!





Acknowledgements and References:

Image courtesy of

 Impact of Employee Engagement on Customer Loyalty, October 2012, Insync Surveys

 Why Employee Engagement has a Direct Impact on Business Bottom Line, Tolman and Wiker, Blog

A Cure of Rising Healthcare Costs? Employee Engagement, Chuck Gose, October 17, 2013, RMG Networks Blog

Employee Engagement’s Impact on Quote Attainment [Data], October 31, 2014, Emma Snider, Hubspot

State of the American Workplace, Gallup

Measuring and Mitigating the Cost of Employee Turnover, Kim E. Ruyle, SHRM Webcast, July 17, 2012

Positive Intelligence, Harvard Business Review, Jan 2012 Issue, Shawn Achor

Workplace Happiness: The High Cost of Unhappy Employees (Infographic), Lisa Chatroop, Blog, November 13, 2013

Do you know the cost of employees leaving your organization, Hay Group Blog, Satya Radjasa, December 03, 2013

Mindlessness: Its impact on Employee Well-being and Performance

Boss-Employee Mindless Conversation

mind·less    (mndls) adj. Giving or showing little attention or care; heedless

If you have been unlucky enough to work with a supervisor who seems to be miles away when you approach him for help or clarity with an issue or maybe worse one who nods off or keeps checking his phone in the middle of a discussion with his team members, then you know exactly what this post is about. Mindless (or rather the lack of a mindful approach) supervision is increasingly seen as a major cause of stress and employee disengagement.

A sense of Interpersonal Justice:

In a study carried out by researchers of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Scientists, researchers showed that infants as young as three months are able to pick up social cues when processing objects in the world around them – scientifically referred to as Social Referencing.

Given that even infants can pick up expressions, its easy to understand how a conversation or an interaction between a supervisor and the team member goes beyond the formal structure or stated intent. Kinesics is the interpretation of body motion communication like facial gestures and expressions. Often when a person says something and doesn’t mean it, the reality is betrayed by subconscious cues.

For example, lets say a team member is in a unaided discussion (i.e. no PPTs or Videos, or audio-visual aids) with her supervisor, going over the performance of a product in the marketplace. The lack of any audio-visual distraction means that she is observing her boss instead of looking at a screen. The discussion starts off with her supervisor launching into a long diatribe about how “we” need to fix the problem, and how “he” will support in any way and how “what has to be done has to be done, lets do it”. Then it’s her turn to tell her thoughts on the issue, and the supervisor is already checking his mails and nodding his head randomly. “Keep going, I am listening,” he says while his non-verbal signals convey an entirely different message all together. Needless to say the team member is not going to have a very good feeling about the conversation or her supervisor.

Mindfulness, or more colloquially the ability to be in the “here and now”, is often associated with improved relationships. When the supervisor is ‘fully present’ in the course of an interaction or conversation with a subordinate, the person feels more valued and as being treated with respect – amounting to a heightened sense of interpersonal justice. Various research studies have found a positive correlation between a sense of interpersonal justice and higher job satisfaction and organizational commitment.

Mindfulness, Employee Performance and Employee Well-Being:

In a rather interesting study done by researchers from Cambridge, NUS and Imperial College, an attempt was made to determine the interpersonal effects of mindfulness in the workplace. The study is different from any done on the impact of behavior of leaders on employees in that it focuses on “how leaders’ quality of awareness and attention influences their employees”

The first hypothesis that the study tested was to check if the trait of mindfulness is positively associated with various facets of employee well being (the study looks at four of them – Employee Emotional Exhaustion, Work-Life Balance, Overall Job Performance and Deviance (Negative/Undesirable actions at work))

The study determined that leader mindfulness was significantly related to both employee well-being and performance measures.

When the supervisor is more mindful,

  • The employee’s emotional exhaustion is lower (r=-0.4)
  • Employee Work-Life balance improves (r=.28)
  • Overall job-performance improves(r=.32)
  • Employee Deviance is lower (r=-.57)

The relationship of mindfulness with various dimensions of employee well-being and performance points to the potentially important role of leading mindfully in organizations.

Tips for leaders to be more mindful at work:

Being mindful is not a fad. Several Silicon Valley Technology firms and Wall Street firms are among those who take it pretty seriously. Google employees have access to an internal course titled “Search Inside Yourself”, which is designed to help them manage their emotions – ideally making them better workers in the process. The cofounders of Twitter and Facebook who have moved on to start new enterprises place a great deal of emphasis on contemplative practices – with regular in-office mediation sessions and optimizing work schedules to maximize mindfulness of their employees.

If you aren’t lucky enough to work at one of these more aware companies, try following one of these tips outline in the book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World authored by Dr. Penman.

  1. Keep a three-minute breathing space in between work:

In the course of a work-day there are several events that can be a source of (unnecessary) stress. The easiest way to counterman the effect is to find a quiet place (this could even be your desk), stop whatever it is you are doing and just breathe deeply for three minutes. Couple this with the act of consciously unplugging from all the devices that are constantly throwing a barrage of information and updates at you. The text message, tweet, email, WhatsApp, Facebook update can all wait a few minutes. Don’t eat your lunch in front of your laptop and leave your phone behind. Go to the common area and have an actual conversation with your team member. It will do wonders to the level of engagement.

  1. Make “strategic acceptance” a part of your solution:

When you feel stressed out about something, Dr Penman advises that you don’t try to fix it but forcing yourself to be happy or calm. Just accept how you feel as it is. He does not say you should accept a bad situation, but just accept your feelings and them focus on what you can do to improve it.

     3. Tune into the distractions:

With the advent of open-workplaces and a general lack of real-estate, one has little or no privacy at work. You will have phones ringing, people talking, printers whirring – all of which can be sources of stress. Dr Penman says that instead of fighting the noise and trying to shut it out, tune into it. Notice the sounds around you and try to see if you can isolate the effect they have on your body. The very act of noticing the sound, robs the sounds of their ability to distract and stress you out.

Being more aware of yourself and being mindful will help you engage successfully with your peers and your subordinates in a more effective manner. A 2010 Survey carried out by the Economic Intelligence Unit found that 84% of respondents believed that alienated employees are one of the biggest threats to their business. A quarter of the employees in a survey done by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said that their jobs were a major source of stress in their lives.

As a leader, manager, supervisor, you owe it your team to not become the boss everyone hopes will “get removed or kicked upstairs” soon. All it takes is three minutes of deep breathing and some conscious effort.

Acknowledgements and References: 

Image courtesy of

Reb, J., Narayanan, J., & Chaturvedi, S. (2014). Leading mindfully: Two studies on the influence of supervisor trait mindfulness on employee well-being and performance.

How being mindful makes for a happier workplace, Jul 29,2013, Rachel Nickless, Financial Review

In Silicon Valley, Meditation Is No Fad. It Could Make Your Career, June 18, 2013, Noah Shachtman, Wired

Mindfulness At Work: 5 Tricks For A Healthier, Less Stressful Work Day, June 24, 2013, Carolyn Gregoire, Huffington Post

Study shows 3-month-olds are sensitive to emotional cues referring to objects in the world, June 10, 2008, (e) Science News.

Re-engaging with engagement, Economist Intelligence Unit

Bad bosses can be bad for your health, August 5, 2012, Sahron Jayson, USA Today

Study: Indian Women Are the Most Stressed on Earth, Rachel Goldstein, July 13, 2011, TIME