Chasing Staff Satisfaction

After reading our latest research report, Employee Empowerment: The Key to Foundation Staff Satisfaction, and discussing CEP’s own Staff Perception Report results from 2012, I found myself asking the question, “Can staff satisfaction ever be fully achieved?”

I don’t mean this to suggest that the pursuit of staff satisfaction isn’t achievable or important. I think it’s crucially important. Nor do I mean to suggest that some organizations’ staffs aren’t more satisfied than others. But what I mean is that the pursuit of staff satisfaction has no end—no finish line.

Instead, it’s a constant pursuit that requires fostering a culture that sustains satisfaction, rather than simply aiming to achieve it once and for all—or even for a moment in time. The challenge of staff satisfaction is its fluidity. As I write this blog post at 1:20pm, I am highly satisfied in my work. Depending on how my afternoon, rest of the week, and rest of the month go, that could change dramatically by April.

Our Employee Empowerment report highlighted the connection between satisfaction and employees feeling empowered in their day-to-day responsibilities. They also need to feel a sense of clear direction from—and alignment with—leadership. As we pursue staff empowerment and satisfaction here at CEP, I am constantly reminded of a simple quote from a colleague that has guided much of my work in designing programs to support our staff: “We don’t do things to people, we do things with them.”

When staff are part of the conversation, better decisions get made. My own assumptions and expectations have been disproved enough times to know that I better make sure I’m asking the right questions before I start providing the answers. As I’m sure many of my colleagues would attest, so many insightful and valuable ideas have come from unexpected places during our staff meetings at CEP.

When it comes to strategic planning, CEP has always engaged the entire staff—as well as advisors and members of our external audience—in order to make the best choices, and we are doing so again as we embark on a new planning process this year. (Editor’s Note: CEP President Phil Buchanan explained why inclusive planning is so important in a series of blog posts in 2010.) We take an inclusive approach to planning because we think it yields the best results, not to drive up staff satisfaction—but there’s no doubt in my mind that it accomplishes both.

We were pleased to see our staff rated CEP in the top 75th percentile of our dataset on factors such as employee empowerment, recognition of achievement, and communication from our leadership. But we also learned that some members of our staff felt that CEP could more effectively use their skills and abilities in certain areas, which has led to several discussions about how we can get the best out of our people. The survey also highlighted a desire among staff for CEP to expand and deepen our influence on foundation practice.

Without surveying our staff and measuring their responses comparatively, these realities would not have come to light so clearly—and we are now better positioned to improve and sustain our better practices, while identifying our priorities for improvement. Our challenge now is to respond to this feedback to hopefully address these opportunities for improvement, while not losing sight of what our staff have come to value and appreciate. By balancing our plan to maintain what we do well and adjust what we can do better, these insights have us better informed to not only sustain but also improve our employee satisfaction.

Going through the exercise of staff surveying is not always easy, of course. But we, of all people, know we must embrace feedback to facilitate improvement—that’s what we tell foundations to do and we take our own medicine. As our Employee Empowerment report concludes,

“Leaders at the foundations whose staff we surveyed make choices every day, consciously or not, that profoundly affect the experiences of their staff. What they do has significant implications for attracting, retaining, and motivating their staff.”

As our research and the experiences of our own survey have taught me, it is the everyday actions that will create and maintain employee satisfaction, just as those everyday actions can undermine it. Understanding the fragile nature of staff satisfaction, we must continuously assess and react to the experiences of our staff in order to sustain and improve it.


Brian Hughes is Director of Talent & Administration at the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

comparative data, Employee Empowerment, Staff Perception Report, talent management
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