Why Organizational Climate Surveys May Do More Harm Than Good — Part 5: Conclusion

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Photo by Thomas Drouault on Unsplash

In the last four parts of this series, we’ve reviewed four myths regarding organizational climate surveys, the assumptions underlying them, and what is more likely to actually happen as a result. We’ll conclude here with a brief look at what’s possible when individuals within a business operate from the regenerative principles of internal locus of control coupled with external considering, rather than handing off responsibility through impersonal surveys. Let’s return to the reflections of managers and employees within DuPont and Weyerhaeuser, where profound benefits were seen by implementing the developmental alternatives to surveying that we’ve been discussing throughout this series.

Holistic Understanding of the Value-adding Process

“An organization can be thought of as separate functions and departments or as one continuous flow of adding continuous value to material. If one can see the aliveness of the making through to the marketing of products, there is a different set of possibilities present than when ‘I do my job and you do yours.’ Some DuPont sectors have learned this and cannot imagine doing it any other way. For example, at one of our plants, we developed an overall direction, and then we got clear on what was the core purpose, core process and core value of our product offering. When they understand the core, people begin to spontaneously organize their work toward that core, because they can see all sorts of things that can be done to better realize those essential properties. When that happens, work becomes a means for people’s personal development as well as professional. People find they are continually being able to bring more of themselves into the world through work. You almost have to hold people back at that stage,” reports a DuPont site manager.

“Our people are able to work at a number of levels concurrently. So if I am operating a machine or service desk, I can work at maintaining the effectiveness of the machine or customer relationship, at improving the overall value of the process or interaction, and also at regenerating the process and its underlying processes, so new value is created that has not existed before. Beyond the physical work, it is all mental. So you can do a number of levels of mental work at the same time you are doing the physical work. It is developing a true understanding of what is really going on, not just following procedures or seeking to achieve standards or specifications and definitely not waiting to be told what to do.”

Generation Through Implementation

“What really keeps me going is knowing that I can work on creating improvements and be involved in carrying them to fruition. I was discouraged by the surveys and suggestion boxes because nothing really changed. In our current way of working we can work on meaningful changes and can see the results that we helped create, not having had someone else do it to me or for me.” Heads nod around the room as the Weyerhaeuser machine operator offers her reflection.

The nature of third party interventions, such as surveys, is such that will of the individual is separated from the effect that is sought — a resolution. When people can and do act directly on what they see needs doing, motivation is high and the whole person becomes involved. Some explanation from a DuPont team leader may help here: “We no longer separate the problem-defining phase from the problem-solution phase, or the idea-generation group from the idea-implementation group. For example, every team in our organization is connected to a business effectiveness parameter and to real stakeholders, such as customers’ and environmental needs, in a direct way, and the teams have ongoing responsibility for the effectiveness of this integrated set of stakeholders.”

Also DuPont’s integrated approach to work enables people to take action for the whole of the operation. “An integrated organization causes you to shift your role. It’s not that you (management) specifically redesign the roles, but the people begin to redesign them because it makes sense. One example: Our technology people have had to be partners with management in the effort to change and regenerate people, product lines, and the manufacturing processes. So their role got substantially expanded. That immediately puts extra demand on all the technical functions. The need becomes apparent, not as a dictate from management but as a business rationale. Not as result of suggestions, but directly.”

Individual Uniqueness and Self-accountable Contribution

People tend to leave the ball in the court of the sponsors of the survey with a “wait and see” attitude in regard to the response. A research and development scientist in DuPont adds to this point. “In a developmental organization, there is no ‘other’ to whom we submit our concerns, and no survey to unconsciously suggest that this is appropriate. We are structured to take action in a self- reliant way for our opinions, and to move the organization into the work of tomorrow, not always cleaning up the problems of yesterday. It is a fundamentally different mindset, and it creates a very different sense of responsibility. I wish we could awaken our politicians to see how it would change the national framework”

One plant manager describes what structuring the organization to provide freedom to act directly provides, over asking people what should be done, in terms of the impact on motivations. “One of the ways we do that is by tying our operators directly to customers as customer champions. Our customers call their champions at home. The champions don’t have to ask for permission to fly out to the other side of the country. For example, once we shipped some contaminated material by mistake. We discovered it before the customers, and all the ‘customer champions’ went to the customer plants immediately to make sure that none of the contaminated product got as far as their process. Then they made sure that everything that had possibly been contaminated was decontaminated. We got calls back from our customers saying, ‘you’ve got to get somebody in here to relieve Fred; he hasn’t left the plant since he got here, he’s been here more than 36 hours and he’s too important to us; you can’t work the guy this hard.’ That is because they really own the business and it effects for customers. It’s an exciting place to work!”

A Developmental Approach to Achieve Intentions

In organizational change, leaders tend to be relativistic. That is, they try various approaches without questioning sufficiently whether these attempts are consistent with their aims. It is important in change to be concordant in our action with an overall direction or the organization’s ability to change is systematically weakened. For example, what is needed in today’s rapid fire world is an organization that can pursue change continuously and be in an ongoing process of reviewing and upgrading all the organizational processes and practices from the overview of the business as a whole. When we conduct surveys, we receive snapshots in time at best and trade off more important aims.

A rigorously disciplined leader in DuPont, who questions every initiative in terms of its effect on the philosophy the company is pursuing, shouts at me when I ask him why a little diversion makes so much difference. “We need our people to see the relationships of their work to the business, so why would we ask questions that cause them to look at only themselves and how they feel without that larger context. We want to foster systems thinking — seeing how everything relates to everything else — not compartmental thinking. We need people who are deliberators, so why ask questions in a way that expects an immediate, unchallenged response. We want people who initiate action on concerns they have, not people who make suggestions to others to correct problems. We want a self-accountable culture with thoughtful people; surveys do not foster that. Surveys reinforce the idea that ‘it is someone else’s problem to fix and I have done my part by making suggestions and telling my feelings and ideas’.”

The DuPont manager speaking is not only clear about what he will not do, but is equally clear about the path he created that gives the organization a better handle on a systems view of reality, one that fosters everyone seeing their impact on customers, shareholders, the environment, and the community in which they work. And one that places a demand on individuals to develop and bring forth more of him or her self, both personally and professionally. There is no survey that can produce the nature of deliberative thinking for the above results or even achieve all the intentions surveys purport to provide. Only a deliberative group process can bring about the full potential behind the intentions, increase self-reliant and purposeful accountability, and avoid the unintentionally consequences and effects.

Further Reading

Surveys are just one of many feedback processes used within organizations that, despite good intentions, actually undermine employee development. For a more complete look at the issue of feedback and what I recommend instead to develop self-regulated employees, see my book, No More Feedback: Cultivate Consciousness at Work. An except detailing my personal experience with feedback is available here on Medium.

Sr Fellow Social Innovation, Babson | Best Selling/Multi-Award Winning Author | Regenerative Paradigm Educator

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