HR Management & Compliance

Four Tips to Turn Action-Planning Woes into Wins

One thing seems to remain constant when it comes to employee surveys: No one enjoys the action-planning process. HR leaders often feel like they are the action-plan police; many managers see the employee survey as just one more thing to add to their already packed plates; and employees are disappointed and disillusioned. In a recent study, 63% of employees stated they expected to see changes based on the employee survey, but only 32% actually saw changes within their organizations. The fix is to solve common action-planning pain points so that feedback is applied and turned into a demonstrable impact. Tips for relief follow.

humanPAIN POINT #1: Survey Credibility Questioned

Employee surveys often suffer because the value of the data is rarely well articulated. When organizational leaders don’t see the value (i.e., business impact) in the employee survey, it loses credibility. With that loss of credibility comes leaders who are apathetic toward dedicating their valuable time and efforts toward working on steps to address areas of concern.

Solution: Show the Impact

Linking survey data to critical business data is a paramount step in enabling strategic action and demonstrating value. When done correctly, employee surveys provide a wealth of information that can be used to strategically direct resources, boost the employee experience, and improve organizational outcomes. To enable these actions, the employee experiences that are captured with the survey (e.g., career development, teamwork, job fit) must be linked to business outcomes (e.g., customer/patient satisfaction, turnover rates, financial metrics) and must be displayed in an easily digestible report for leaders, like in the tool’s manager dashboard. This, in turn, gives the survey efforts credibility and shows the dollar-and-cents impact to leaders.

PAIN POINT #2: The Hamster Wheel Effect

In a typical survey process, organizations focus on the lowest-scoring survey topics or their engagement scores. The problems with these two strategies are as follows:

  • Topics that score the lowest are often always the same handful of things: Items that fall to the bottom are likely to stay there in comparison to other survey topics year over year. This can build frustration for leaders who feel like they focus on and work toward improvements on the same items every year. It’s like the hamster wheel of action planning and can lead to leader disengagement and a loss of credibility in the survey process.
  • Engagement isn’t tangible: Engagement is an emotional reaction to one’s work environment, and the more tangible factors (e.g., career development, work/life balance, teamwork) are what impact one’s level of engagement. Managers need to focus on driving the tangible experiences that can be clearly defined and acted upon.

Solution: Shrink the Universe

Once leaders solve for pain point #1, they are well equipped to solve pain point #2 because they can focus on which survey topics demonstrate the strongest relationship with the organization’s key business outcomes. In shrinking managers’ universe of topics to focus on, they can then look within the prioritized topics and determine how their teams scored and focus more sharply.

PAIN POINT #3: Managers Don’t Know Where to Start

No matter what information leaders are given regarding where to focus, if they don’t know how to get started, the action-planning process will stall or be ineffective. In this case, the manager may not build an action plan or will build one that merely allows him or her to check the box but not really be effective in creating positive change.

Solution: Give Them Extra Intelligence

Even before the survey is administered, HR teams can work to ensure that managers are well equipped with resources that will facilitate action-plan building. This can involve mapping appropriate action steps that align with the survey questions.

Taking this a step further, if the organization has training courses/materials that have already been purchased, those courses likely align well with many of the survey topics and can be referenced as appropriate action steps. Additionally, managers often benefit from some general reminders and “nudges” about the basics of action planning.

Lastly, to make action planning even more seamless for leaders, they can leverage artificial intelligence (AI) if the tool has the capability. For example, AI could prepopulate managers’ action plans based on what areas are impactful, their survey results, and proven action steps demonstrated to generate impact. All leaders would have to do is click one button and review and submit their intelligently designed action plans.

PAIN POINT #4 Manager Accountability

In some cases, HR leaders may believe they are doing the right thing by letting managers take ownership of their survey results. The problem with this approach is that even the best-intentioned leader may let the results and follow-up fall by the wayside, unless the organization requires managers to establish a course of action. Furthermore, without emphasizing and even requiring that leaders take action, the value gained from the survey program will not be realized.

Solution: Set Clear Goals and Share Oversight

The key is to cascade the oversight down to the leaders of leaders and let it roll up. In addition, HR should set a schedule of milestones in the action-planning process to keep managers on track. For example:

  • 30 days after survey results: Leaders should have shared results with teams, gathered any additional feedback needed, and created an action plan with at least three action items.
  • 45 days after survey reporting: Each leader of leaders should be required to meet with all direct reports with action plans to review and discuss and ensure they are on the right track.
  • 90 days after survey reporting: A follow-up meeting should be held to check in on progress and ensure managers are working on the plans they’ve developed.

By understanding the common pain points for action planning and the best ways to mitigate them, HR leaders will be equipped to tackle the action-planning process head-on. The key items to remember are: 1) Make it relevant (connect to business outcomes); 2) prioritize where to focus; 3) equip with ways to get started; and 4) share oversight. By preventing the pain points, organizational leaders can start seeing action planning as a worthwhile process rather than a “check-the-box” exercise.

Hannah Spell, PhD, is the Director of Research and Analytics at Strategic Management Decisions (SMD) ( Spell provides senior-level consulting support to all of SMD’s clients, including, but not limited to, analyzing data, building presentations, presenting results, and supporting any follow-up activities and events.