March 3rd 2020

How mystery employees discover hidden potential…

What can companies do to get real and unfiltered feedback from their employees? Bring in a "mystery employee," says Herbert Höckel from moweb. Mr. Höckel, what information do employee satisfaction questionnaires provide? When does such a questionnaire make sense and what should it ask and how? The current scandal about manipulated questionnaires on employee satisfaction at Deutsche Post shows how not to do it.

Herbert Höckel: Yes, that's right, the Deutsche Post scandal is a prime example of what's going wrong right now. Our world has changed massively in recent years. The demands that companies have to face today are enormous: New Work, agility, digitalization and GenZ - to name just a few. These challenges become problematic when hierarchically organized corporations try to control this rampant "Modern Liberty". As a rule, decision-makers in the individual departments already know what is going wrong. Existing deficits are probably not addressed for the first time in the regular employee satisfaction survey. But the gap between the minimax aspirations of the profit-oriented corporate culture on the one hand and the selfie-posting GenZ apostles on the other could not be wider. Linear autocracy won't get you very far here. Since the fish often stinks from the head, middle managers fearing for their jobs are almost forced into manipulation in this predicament. Personally, I feel sorry for everyone involved in this drama. The employees who have been robbed of their voice, the managers who are faking rather than leading, and the clueless board members who are being presented with embellished truths.

It's much more interesting to find out how to do it better: First and foremost, the corporate culture has to be right. Employees must have confidence that they will not suffer any disadvantage as a result of honesty. It must be ensured that information is treated strictly confidentially and anonymously, and that the topics addressed in it are also accepted. That's why I strongly recommend that employee satisfaction surveys always be conducted by an external institute. The solution is in plain language: The employee must experience appreciation! The role of management is not to dictate and lead, but to enable and respect. The employees are the most important pillar of a company and their satisfaction is the driving force for motivation and decisive for success. The more satisfied employees are, the better. The topic of employer branding is also becoming increasingly important and satisfied employees must become a solid, sovereign constant of the company.

What the questionnaire then asks in detail is in a way secondary, as long as the corresponding corporate culture is right. After all, it can sometimes be uncomfortable if there are structural problems or strategic deficits. But it is precisely problems and deficits that often provide valuable opportunities for optimization and can be transformed into opportunities and advantages.

How should the results of surveys be handled? What consequences should follow?

This question is not so easy to answer, because it varies from case to case. Personally, I don't think it makes sense to conduct something like this on a regular basis as a structured questionnaire. Instead, it makes more sense to set up a kind of digital complainer. I still know this from my school days. There was a mailbox for praise and criticism in front of the teachers' lounge. It was called exactly that because both are equally important. The employee should be able to give feedback upwards when it is acute and not when the management has decided to pat itself on the back. According to the motto, "Dit ham' wa jut jemacht!"

What we need instead is a positive culture of error: employees should have the confidence to make mistakes and to be able to report problems without being taken to task for it. But supervisors must also be able to admit mistakes. If all we do is butter each other up, we might as well not bother. We have to go where it hurts and get to the root of the problem. An acute problem always requires a short- to medium-term solution. Otherwise, it will develop into a chronic problem. Dissatisfaction then quickly turns into resignation. And resigned employees work with a reduced willingness to perform or have already created a profile on Stepstone.

Particularly in a hierarchy, many suggestions, wishes or proposals for improvement are lost on the way up to the top. How can this be changed?

In the Japanese philosophy of life and work, there is the concept of "Kaizen", which literally means "change for the better". This is a methodical concept that centers on the pursuit of continuous and infinite improvement. The improvement takes place in a selective optimization of all critical success factors. This concept is known to us as the concept of continuous improvement (CIP). According to the Kaizen philosophy, there is still a lot to change in our company, especially in terms of corporate management. When I look around in the business world, I see many companies that still rely on hierarchical, authoritarian leadership. I think that is neither contemporary nor efficient. In terms of continuous improvement, flatter company hierarchies and a direct honest exchange make perfect sense. But in large corporations, flat hierarchies don't work simply because of their size. So today you see many corporations that are scaling back agile methods that have just been introduced and replacing them with semi-authoritarian agile structures. Nevertheless, I believe that employee satisfaction is always and absolutely a matter for the boss. This is especially true if the boss is on the third, fourth or fifth level of the hierarchy. The satisfaction of the company's own employees must be a matter close to the heart of the management.

But how is a corporate decision-maker supposed to promote employee satisfaction if he or she is presented with embellished, falsified or approving results? To be able to take real action, decision-makers need honest and unfiltered feedback. However, this is rarely found in internally conducted studies on employee satisfaction.

How do you think companies get "real" and "unfiltered" feedback?

Existing dependency relationships, social desirability and a lack of appreciation ultimately lead to the problem of not having honest, unfiltered feedback. Some don't dare to give it out of fear for their jobs. Others are simply being polite. And some are already so resigned inside because they fear that nothing will change anyway. So, unfortunately, it happens far too often in everyday life that the management summaries in the boardrooms are too far removed from reality. I am sure that if the board members of Deutsche Bahn were to travel across Germany in the economy class of their own product, we would have an intelligent 12-point master plan for the modernization, refurbishment and digitalization not only of the route network, but of the entire product within a very short time.

The moweb mystery employee is a standardized procedure for precisely this internal structure, process and deficit analysis. In consultation with the company's management and human resources department, mock interns are embedded in all areas critical to the company in order to identify optimization potential. In doing so, we focus on objective observation of improvement potentials as well as the collection of unfiltered feedback through informal conversations using the coffee gossip method with affected employees. Within a very short time, our trained observers identify systematic deficits and report on grievances to which individual teams may already have become operationally blind. Combined with a digital grievance box, this creates a 360° feedback portal in which genuine, unfiltered feedback and clear, actionable recommendations become apparent. With this knowledge advantage, increasing employee satisfaction becomes almost child's play. The moweb mystery employee is a deep-dive reality check. If you are brave enough to face the truth, you can identify opportunities and turn them into success.

Thank you very much for the interview!

Herbert Höckel is managing partner of moweb.
The interview was conducted by Gessica Uerling

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Herbert Höckel

Herbert Höckel is a managing partner here at moweb research GmbH. He has been a market researcher for more than 25 years. In 2004 he founded moweb GmbH, which he is still the owner today. moweb from Düsseldorf operates internationally and is one of the first German market research institutes specializing in digital processes.

You are welcome to purchase his book "Customer Centricity Mindset ® - Really Understand Customers, Master Disruption Successfully" here.

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