Employee Engagement Action Planning: Using Data to Drive Impact

Monday, January 22, 2018

Managers are often held responsible for solving all employee HR problems. This is particularly true in the case of employee engagement. Imagine a confused manager approaching their HR director for advice. The company has just completed its annual employee engagement survey and the results were overall pretty good; average scores across survey items indicated that the manager’s team had some areas of strength and a few areas of opportunity. However, many of the low-scoring items seem like things they had little control over. For example, process efficiency seems out of their hands because the company operates in a highly regulated environment, and the department has strict process requirements. Is it appropriate to hold the manager accountable for this? How would you advise them in action planning?

Organizations use engagement surveys to drive action. Regardless of how an organization defines and measures employee engagement, value is created only to the extent that the right actions are taken based on survey results. To this end, organizations typically use employee survey results to understand the level of employee engagement for the company as a whole, how each manager is doing at engaging their work group, or some level in between (such as employee engagement in a business unit or location). Action plans therefore may be focused at the organizational level (such as company policy on flexible work arrangements), the manager level (such as making sure each line manager gives their staff adequate flexibility), or somewhere in between (such as a redesign of call center schedules in a regional facility to allow for more flexibility).

What Contributes to Engagement?

We know that employee engagement can be influenced by a range of factors across organizational levels. Factors like company culture, company performance, and executive leader communications can have a big impact across all employees. But more local factors like the style of an employee’s direct manager play an important role as well. Typically, organizations and managers do not understand exactly how each of these inputs affects engagement and therefore use a shotgun approach with action planning, investing in a range of efforts, unsure of where to devote resources for optimal impact. For example, should a firm invest in a powerful communication campaign for all employees, or would it be more effective to upskill the line managers?

Get to the Root Cause

This is precisely where diving into the data can help. Common survey metrics like percentage of favorable responses are good at providing the big picture and describing how a company or work group is doing. Most companies stop here and encourage managers to focus on improving in their lowest areas. This is a good start, but it assumes that managers have equal influence over all the items on an engagement survey. To get the next level of value, it is important to look at how much scores vary across teams.

We used this approach and learned a great deal about where to invest effort for the greatest impact. We looked at each survey item to determine how much it varied across teams, understanding that the items that vary more are likely under more control of the manager of that team, whereas the items that vary little from one team to another are likely influenced by organizational-level forces (like company culture, company performance, or executive leadership).

Specifically, we found that a grouping of three items related to process efficiency varied the most across teams. Some teams had very positive opinions of process efficiency, whereas some teams felt that process efficiency was an opportunity area. We were not very focused on this aspect of the managerial job until we saw the numbers, which indicate that managers vary quite a bit in this area; some have good processes whereas some do not, and employees recognized these differences through their survey responses. Importantly, the overall performance of these items for the company is fairly strong. If we had only looked at the overall percentage favorable, we would have missed an opportunity to upskill some managers on an important aspect of their leadership role – establishing efficient processes on their teams. This was especially meaningful because managers tend to assume they have no influence over process issues working in a highly regulated industry; our data showed that this is a myth.


Action Planning for Impact The key to action planning for the greatest impact is to determine where individual managers have the most control over their teams’ scores. We found value in looking at variance across teams and making note of which survey dimensions or items varied a lot from one team to another. Whether survey data are handled internally or by a supplier, a simple variance metric like a standard deviation or intraclass correlation can provide useful information. Higher variance indicates that some teams are doing well, whereas others are struggling with that item. For the high variance items, try the following strategies.

Advise on action plan priorities. We started this post with a confused manager, unsure of how to prioritize action items. Knowing that they have the greatest control over the high variance survey items, advise them to pay attention to those items that vary a lot across teams in the company. Of these items, where does their team score lowest? There is less value in their spending effort on low-scoring items that do not vary much across teams, as those items are likely influenced by company-wide factors and therefore should be addressed by company-wide actions.

Identify the high-scoring managers as role models. Where item scores vary a lot across teams, find out what is working for the teams with high scores. Often times, your best managers will have figured out what works. Find ways to share their best practice recommendations with others.

Awareness can have a big impact. For high-variance items, identify the managers whose teams score lowest. Do they understand how much control they have over these areas? Too often, managers assume they cannot do much about a problem area, and it can help to show them data that refute their beliefs. We often heard from managers that they had no control over process efficiency because of the industry we work in. We are communicating to the company that managers actually have more control over process efficiency than any other area on the survey, breaking up the myth that managers cannot improve their processes.

Consider capability-building opportunities. Work with managers who have low scores on the high variance items and make sure they are aware of any resources the company makes available on that topic, such as toolkits or open-enrollment learning. Managers should prioritize their capability building in the areas they can directly control.

About the Author
Eliza Wicher, PhD, is the people insights lead with AbbVie. Contact her at
About the Author
Paul Bliese, PhD, is associate professor at the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina.
About the Author
Dhuha Abdulsalam is a PhD candidate in business administration and management at the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina.
1 Comment
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Very well written article. I agree with the steps suggested. Prioritizing based on where our efforts will have the most effect is the first step. Low hanging fruit is not always the best way to begin.
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