Survey Says: Understanding Employees’ Perceptions Helps Drive Improvement

A few weeks ago, Kevin Bolduc and Karina Kocemba of CEP were here at the New York State Health Foundation (NYSHealth) to lead an all-staff discussion of the results of our most recent Staff Perception Report. As the meeting wrapped up, Kevin handed me an advance copy of CEP’s new research report by his colleagues Ellie Buteau and Ramya Gopal, Employee Empowerment: The Key to Foundation Staff Satisfaction, figuring I’d find it useful given our Foundation’s experience over the last several years trying to understand and improve staff satisfaction.

He was right; I enjoyed the featured case studies of two foundations (The Commonwealth Fund and The Skillman Foundation) that have implemented changes to enhance staff satisfaction and empowerment, and I appreciated learning more about how the factors driving staff satisfaction relate to a foundation’s operations and impact.

People think of foundations as plum places to work, so why should we as foundation leaders care about staff satisfaction? Perhaps more important is what staff satisfaction means within foundations and what factors influence it.

There’s evidence that satisfaction is linked to performance. A positive, productive work environment where people are pushing toward the same goals will yield better results than an organization where people are just going through the motions, punching the clock, and collecting their checks.

And we at NYSHealth are seeing that employees’ perceptions are linked to grantees’ perceptions, at least in our experience (CEP is working on a more robust analysis of this relationship), which makes sense. If our own staff, for example, don’t understand our goals and strategies as an organization, how could we possibly expect our grantees and other stakeholders to make sense of our priorities? If staff feel frustrated, how can they be effective ambassadors for the foundation?

But for me as a leader, staff satisfaction is personal, as well. Who wants to come to work every day to an office where people think their skills are not being used effectively or who are not exactly sure how they can make a difference in creating good outcomes? Just on a human level, it’s much more rewarding to me to work in a place where there’s good energy and enthusiasm among the staff. And I’ll admit it: I care what people, including my staff, think of me and of the organization I lead.

So it was a bit jarring to me and to my senior staff team when we first received the results of our 2010 Staff Perception Report. In 2010, our scores had dropped on some key measures of staff satisfaction and empowerment since 2008, and we found ourselves below the median of similar foundations on measures related to staff empowerment and internal communications.

After reviewing our results, we spent some time navel-gazing: What was driving these scores? Why were staff feeling frustrated? More importantly, how could we identify priorities and strategies for improving staff satisfaction and empowerment? And how could we do so in a way that would result in real changes—not simply superficial fixes that might bump up our survey scores, but improvements that could transform our organization and its culture?

As a first step, we established a “Nine-day committee” of staff from across the organization. The committee was tasked with coming up with solutions quickly (within nine days of its inception) to get us moving in the right direction. In the past, when we had tried to tackle organizational improvements, we too often got bogged down with process and perfectionism; the idea here was to take swift action that would result in some early and visible wins for us an organization. We did end up taking some swift actions, but the Nine-day committee also kept us organized for at least six months, addressing a range of initiatives to change our work environment.

For example, to help improve internal communications, the committee suggested that I begin sending a weekly e-mail message to all staff with updates on key activities, developments, and decisions. Implementing this “Friday e-mail” has been an important component of our efforts to communicate consistently and regularly. And our efforts in this area seem to be working: in 2012, we saw a significant improvement in staff members’ rating of satisfaction with the level of information provided by management, jumping from well below the median to well above.

We also recognized that empowerment meant getting all of our program staff more involved in defining priorities and goals and developing the grants we make. As the organization grew relatively quickly from a small staff of eight to more than 20 employees, senior staff had not grappled with the challenge of how to factor in the voices and creativity of a larger group of professionals as we go about our work.

How did the somewhat painful process of being surveyed by CEP help us?  First, while we knew before we did the survey in 2010 that some staff were not completely happy with our work environment, the staff survey results made us confront the reality that concerns among staff were more widespread and were influencing our effectiveness.

Then, we benefited from the early analysis and hunches of the CEP staff (which led to the current research effort) that satisfaction is starkly related to empowerment, communications, and opportunities for learning and growth. This understanding guided how we went about changing our interactions as colleagues to make our workplace more interactive and better designed to benefit from the full range of skills our staff bring to the table.

It’s an ongoing process. Yes, our survey scores in 2012 were much better than in 2010, but we realize that we can’t be complacent. Our approach to organizational improvement and staff empowerment really has become a part of our DNA.

Today, we are more conscious of how decisions—and the way we communicate about them—will affect our staff. We look for opportunities for staff to grow and learn, even in a small organization with limited room for promotion. And we recognize that, even with hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank, our staff are our most valuable assets.


James R. Knickman is President and Chief Executive Officer of the New York State Health Foundation and serves as a member of CEP’s Board of Directors. You can find him on Twitter @JimKnickman and join the conversation about this report at hashtag #Empower.

communications, Employee Empowerment, foundation staff/program officers, Staff Perception Report
Previous Post
New Report on Strategy at Community Foundations Sparks Debate
Next Post
Creating Community at The Commonwealth Fund

Related Blog Posts