photo of Mary Faulkner, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor.

It sounds good to have an action plan, right? But action plans can be the ultimate check-the-box activity. Mary Faulkner explores some of the main reasons why your action plans may not be resulting in real action. – Mary Faulkner, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor.

Most people who have worked for an organization with more than 10 employees have probably been through this experience.

Leadership launches an engagement survey that requires a lot of upfront work and response. Then the process drops off the radar for a bit while behind the scenes analysis takes place. Then there is another flurry of activity as the results come out and everyone communicates them (typically in a cascading fashion) and tries to figure out what they mean. Many conversations are had. Frustration is vented. Heads nods in knowing agreement.

And then it’s time for the “action plan.”

Time passes. Work returns to its daily rhythms, and people forget that they were going to implement new ideas and processes. The old ways endure. You send out the next engagement survey…and the results are the same as, or worse than, the last time.

Ultimately, this cycle of busy work and disappointment comes down to the fact that we are focusing on the wrong things. We are focusing on artifacts we can point to when people ask, “what are we doing about the culture and our employees’ engagement,” instead of actually focusing on the day-to-day things that impact the culture and our employees’ engagement.

Action plans can be the ultimate check-the-box activity. It sounds good to have an action plan, right? When you tell other organizations that all your supervisors create action plans based on the engagement survey results, it looks like you’re really holding people accountable. After all, you verified that there was an action plan on file for all eligible supervisors. You sent communications with expectations. Why didn’t everything get better?

There are many reasons why your action plans may not be resulting in real action:

  • Timing: Maybe too much time passed. Maybe not enough time passed. Maybe you had a lot of turnover in the organization and the new employees’ problems are completely different from the old employees’ problems. Maybe you just rolled out a super unpopular new benefits package and people are pissed. Whatever it might be, action plans by their nature are backward- looking and tend to assume a certain level of status quo.
    Solution: Find the right balance between addressing the past while focusing on future needs. Even better, make it an ongoing conversation rather than an event.  

  • Logistics: If a process is too hard to complete, people will resist it. It doesn’t matter if it’s applying for a job, downloading a form, or completing an online action plan. Too often, we force managers to labor through a clunky action planning process. By the time they’re done with the process, they are DONE with the process (if you catch my drift).
    Solution: Whatever you land on for follow up, make it simple and easy to adjust in real time.

  • Focusing on the wrong deliverable: Too often we confuse activity with results. I mean, all that work people did sure felt like something important was being done, didn’t it? Unfortunately, nothing changed and all the organization is left with is a bunch of managers who are annoyed that they had to do busy work and a bunch of employees who think nothing they say matters. If you’re reporting on the number of action plans entered in the system and not the quality of actions and behaviors, you’re doing it wrong.
    Solution: Figure out what you’re REALLY trying to accomplish…and report on that. If it’s about career development, report on internal hires and employee development opportunity – not on how many managers listed “career development discussions” as an action item that never gets done. Remember – engagement is an OUTCOME, not an initiative.

  • Trying to fix EVERYTHING: Let’s face it – most engagement surveys are way too long and try to address every single variable in the workplace. These variables might be important, but in what context? And are they a root cause or a symptom? Adding to the problem is that most survey vendors don’t aggregate your results across themes – they put them into four or five “constructs” and leave the rest to you to resolve. As a result, you have managers trying to create an action plan to “solve” fifteen potential problem areas. In a year.
    Solution: Work with the data to find one or two underlying themes to focus on; e.g., communication. Then structure your actions around that theme. Coordinate any activities managers do to tie back into that one theme.

  • Expectations, not setting: Organizations shoot themselves in the foot all the time when they launch engagement surveys. They don’t get full commitment from the executive team about what changes are on or off the table. They don’t explain why the organization is conducting an engagement survey. They don’t explain to employees what the intended outcomes might be. As a result, employees have unrealistic expectations about what an engagement survey can and cannot do.
    Solution: Be able to articulate a simple message of why the organization is conducting this survey and what the data will tell you, and then how you’ll use the data to make some decisions moving forward.

  • Right problems, wrong people: The number one complaint I hear from front-line and mid-level managers about action plans is that the problems the employees identify are the right ones…and the direct supervisor has NO authority or ability to make real changes. So managers fill their action plans with vague assurances around “regular 1:1s” and “cascading communication,” even though what really impacts the employees is a horrible technical infrastructure that makes their jobs harder, or maybe a promotion policy that’s dictated from above.

Solution: When identifying themes to tackle, be open to the fact that some of them may entail a MASSIVE system change which requires executive buy-in and action. And if the executives are unwilling to change, they need to own it, say it clearly, and explain why. Then don’t ask about it again – because if you’re not willing to make the change, don’t frame a question as though you will.

Obviously, this doesn’t cover every reason why action plans fail. I didn’t even touch on lack of managerial courage, limited development of core leadership skills, or a myriad of other issues. Hopefully, it starts a conversation within your organization about a better way to approach follow through on surveys. In fact, it might even cause you to realize a survey isn’t the best approach for your organization at all. And that’s okay, too. Find a way that works for YOUR organization to get to where you want to go and do it, no matter what the best practices say.

Because moving forward is the best follow through of all.


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