Do You Know What Your People Are Thinking?


Do you know what your employees are thinking? About your organization? About their co-workers? About management? About you? Should you care? Yes, you should! Because what people think influences how they act. And what your employees think – their attitudes, opinions, views, perceptions, likes and dislikes – influences how they behave and perform in the workplace, and ultimately impacts your organization’s effectiveness, efficiency and bottom line. Therefore, it is in an organization’s interest to find out what its employees are thinking, what’s making them tick and what’s not, what they’re happy about and what they’re not happy about; because it could make the difference between a successful organization and a not so successful one.


How Do You Know What Your People Are Thinking?

So how do you find out what your employees are thinking? Simple. Ask them! You can ask them in several ways: you can pull them aside individually and ask them what they think about the organization; you can interview them using a formal, structured interview; you can conduct employee focus groups and discuss organization-related issues; or you can survey them. Our preferred methodology is the employee survey as it offers the greatest level of anonymity and confidentiality of all the methods, and we have learned that respondent anonymity and confidentiality are very important to employees in the Caribbean, where mistrust of management and the fear of victimization are very high.


Our Organizational Performance Model

For the last thirteen years, we at Quality Consultants Limited have been asking employees in the Caribbean what they think of their organizations and their managements through employee surveys, with a view to helping these organizations understand their employees better and create great workplaces. Our process is based on a simple model that links employee attitudes to organizational outcomes through employee behaviours (see figure below). The model suggests that employees’ attitudes about their organization are influenced in large part by what their managements do, for example, their leadership and management style, their people management practices, their communication style and the organizational culture that they create. Employee attitudes in turn influence their organizational behavior, including their job performance, their productivity levels, their discretionary effort, their absenteeism and retention. Employees’ behaviour then influences how they interact and relate with their internal and external customers, and therefore, impacts customer outcomes like customer satisfaction, product and service quality, customer loyalty and retention; which, in turn, impact organizational outcomes like profitability, market share, shareholder value, and in the case of not-for-profit organizations, goal attainment, cost effectiveness and operational efficiency.

Figure 1: How Employee Attitudes Impact Organizational Outcomes

This model is based on a lot of management research linking employee attitudes to organizational outcomes. One often-cited study was done several years ago at the US department store, Sears Roebuck. They found that a 5% increase in employee attitudes, as measured by employee surveys, led to a 1.3% increase in customer satisfaction, which, in turn, resulted in a .5% improvement in revenue growth. Although half of a percent in revenue growth may seem small, for a nation-wide organization like Sears Roebuck, it can add up to quite a bit.


Our Employee Benchmark Survey

Since we started conducting employee surveys in the Caribbean, we’ve learned a lot about Caribbean workers, Caribbean organizations, and Caribbean managements. We’ve surveyed upwards of 60 organizations, many of them several times, and well over 50,000 employees. Every two years, we conduct an Employee Benchmark Survey (EBS) of employee workplace attitudes and opinions. The objectives of the EBS are to give participating organizations feedback on what their employees are thinking about ten key measures of employee satisfaction and engagement, and to benchmark the organizations against each other with a view to helping them become great places to work and employers of choice.
Over the time that we’ve been conducting these surveys, we’ve honed our survey instrument down to these ten measures that we consider to be critical to engagement and organizational success. They are:

  • Strategic Alignment: the extent to which employees are aware of and agree with their organization’s vision, mission, goals and objectives, and align their career goals with them;
  • Customer Focus: employees’ assessment of their organization’s relationship with, and treatment of its external customers;
  • Leadership: employees’ assessment of their senior leader’s leadership style and practices;
    Management/Employee Relations: an assessment of the relationship between managers and employees in the organization;
  • Talent Management Practices: employees’ perception of how their organization manages its human capital in terms of its recruitment, retention, development, compensation and motivation practices and strategies;
  • Supervision: employees’ assessment of their immediate supervisor’s management and supervisory skills, competencies and relations with employees;
  • Communication: employees’ assessment of how information is shared and disseminated in their organization;
  • Work Organization: employees’ opinions about the organization and efficiency of work processes in their organization, and its impact on their work/life balance;
  • Corporate Social Responsibility: the extent to which their organization practices good corporate citizenship toward its employees, the environment and the communities in which it operates; and
  • Employee Engagement: the extent to which employees are willing to say positive things about their organization, “go the extra mile” for it, remain with it and consider it a great place to work.

In the 2012 edition of the EBS, we surveyed 29 organizations and almost 5,000 employees from five English- and Dutch-speaking Caribbean countries, covering the energy, financial services, airline, telecommunication, media, retail and distribution and services industries.


What the Survey says

The key finding from our 2012 Employee Benchmark Survey is that average employee satisfaction among the almost 5,000 employees from the 29 organizations was 54%. That is, a little over one in two employees is satisfied with the ten organizational and management issues covered in our Survey. In contrast, just over one in five (22%) is dissatisfied, and just about a quarter (24%) are sitting on the fence, neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, waiting for something to move them one way or the other. If our sample of 29 Caribbean organizations is representative of Caribbean organizations in general, then we aren’t doing too well when it comes to employee satisfaction and engagement in the region.
Other highlights from the Survey are that:

  • Over 80% of the employees are proud of their organization; but only 60% are satisfied working there and would recommend it as a great place to work. The high satisfaction level for pride is something these organizations can leverage to increase satisfaction in other areas.
  • Just over half of the employees plan to stay with their organization for a long time, are willing to go the extra mile for it and look forward to coming to work every day; but only a quarter would remain with their organization if they were offered another job with more pay and benefits. This last finding has implications for talent retention and compensation management.
  • Two out of three employees think their organization is doing a good job of focusing on their external customers and on corporate social responsibility. In fact, customer focus, CSR and supervision were the top three satisfaction areas in the survey.
  • But only two out of five employees (40%) are happy with their organization’s senior leaders, its talent management practices and its internal communication. In fact, less than half of the employees in the Survey think that their senior leaders provide good leadership for their organization. Less than half have confidence in their senior leaders’ decision making; and less than 40% usually believe what their senior leaders tell them! These are not good results for our organizations’ senior leadership.


Different People Think Differently

Other findings of the Survey are that employees in the retail and distribution industry had the highest satisfaction levels of all industries, while, interestingly, energy sector employees had the lowest satisfaction levels, putting paid to the argument that the more money you make, the more satisfied you are!
Also of interest is the fact that, although we have one of the most buoyant economies in the region, Trinidad & Tobago employees had lower satisfaction and engagement levels than their regional counterparts.
Our surveys also find that the higher you go in your organization, the more satisfied you become. On the average, managers are up to twice as satisfied as employees on the lowest rung of the organizational ladder. This might be expected. However, the finding has implications for management decision making. If managers make decisions, especially those affecting employees, based on their perception of organizational reality, they may, in fact, be making minority decisions, as the majority, their employees, have a different perception of organizational reality. This may be one of the reasons why employees do not have much faith in their leaders’ decisions. It means that leaders need to engage employees and their representatives more in the decision making process, if they want to get buy-in and commitment from them.
Employee satisfaction and engagement also vary with years of service: what we call the U-Curve Effect. Satisfaction is high in the first few years with a new organization. Then it dips dramatically after about three to five years. But it starts going up again after about five years. This may be related to upward movements in the organization as a result of seniority. This finding also has implications for talent retention as it supports the view that new employees, especially the Millenials and the Gen Xs and Ys, don’t stay with an organization for more than three to five years. To retain talent, organizations will need to develop retention strategies for this group of employees, for example, constantly giving them new and challenging assignments and projects to work on, giving them lateral promotions and broader exposure, but most of all, managing their pre-employment expectations of the job and the organization by giving them realistic job previews.
One interesting non-finding from our surveys is that we have found no significant gender differences in our results. This is a bit surprising, as we may have expected to find that men and women have different levels of employee satisfaction. To date, this has not been the case.


What You Don’t Know Could Hurt You!

Over the years, our employee surveys have taught us that, if you don’t know what your people are thinking about your organization, you should find out – but only if you intend to do something about it. If you don’t think you’ll like what you hear, don’t bother to ask, because, invariably, the first time you ask, you’ll get a torrent of pent-up complaints and venting. But
not to ask is not an option either. You’re between the devil and the deep blue sea. Better to take to the sea – and swim!
Our surveys have also taught us that leadership is the main challenge in our organizations; but good leadership is also the solution. To the extent that management practices influence employee attitudes and behaviour, organizational leaders need to create a culture and environment of trust with their employees by being open and leveling with them, continuously communicating with them, and engaging them in decision making and problem solving. Your employees are the greatest resource in your organization. They are in the trenches and on the frontline everyday. They know what works and what doesn’t. They should be your partners in the business.
Research has linked employee satisfaction and engagement to absence levels; tardiness; productivity; quality; employee retention; and reduction in accidents, injuries, wastage and rework. Several studies have demonstrated a clear relationship between the willingness of employees to expend discretionary effort toward the achievement of organizational objectives and the achievement of those objectives. Engaged, motivated employees are one of the most significant contributors to high performance and organizational success in today’s competitive marketplace. Employee satisfaction and engagement are not just “nice to have.” They are a prerequisite for organizational success. If you don’t know what your people are thinking, it could hurt you!


By Dr. Kwame R. Charles
Director, Quality Consultants Limited