Data is an incredible asset when you're up against company-wide misinformation and those opposed to change. HR teams often have the unfortunate job of delivering news or data that some people don’t want to hear, even when it can benefit them and the company in the long run.
It can be challenging for some people to acknowledge their workplace has issues and admit things need to change. Used correctly, data and storytelling can help make those two mental hurdles seem less daunting and help you increase leadership buy-in.
Here are three examples of the political battles you might face during your career and how to use employee engagement data to disprove convenient theories and drive change at your organization.
Collecting and analyzing data is only half the battle – using it to change behavior and improve your workplace is another story. To win political battles, you need to learn how to present your data in a way that engages your audience and calls them to arms. Some people like to hear stories first to set the stage, while others want the hard facts and figures first for context. Knowing your audience and which to lead is crucial to winning your case.
Let’s say you notice that your company has a large turnover rate among women. You decide to take another look at the results of your last employee engagement survey to see if you can get to the bottom of this trend. When you compare your female employees’ experience data to your male employees, you notice a huge disconnect. It turns out most of your female employees don’t feel valued or supported by your company.
With your evidence in hand, you go back to your business leaders and present the data. The numbers immediately grab their attention. When they ask what the high turnover rate means, you dive into your qualitative data:
The recent employee departures were just the tip of the iceberg. The employees who recently departed the company are just the people who have let their frustrations rise to the surface...so far. But they weren’t the only unhappy ones. There is a more significant issue at play that will continue to force more employees out if left unchanged. You tell your team that they have to address the work culture and problems that are frustrating women at your company and forcing them to look for employment elsewhere. You then shared some anonymous stories your female employees shared about how they felt disrespected.
One story that came up was women were never introduced with professional credentials – Mrs. or Ms. instead of Dr. – while their male colleagues always were. This gave people a concrete example to wrap their heads around, so they weren’t overwhelmed or more likely to reject the feedback. The team is surprised by your revelation, and the decision to create a plan of action to address the issue is unanimous.
Dealing with pushback
If only every situation were that easy. Other times, you might receive more pushback from senior leaders, especially if some take your report as a personal attack on their leadership abilities. If someone feels attacked, they might try to downplay the situation, pass the blame to someone beneath them, or invalidate your research with “intellectual aggression” by undermining or casting down on your research so they seem right. An intellectual aggressor might ask nit-picky questions, not to satisfy their curiosity, but to dig into the nuances of your data or ask about obscure, unrelated scientific terms when they don’t like the answer you’ve given them.
Let’s say you’ve noticed an increase in employees transferring teams in your company, and the trend has caught your attention. You speak to the departments’ senior leaders in question, and they quickly say that the employees transferred departments because they didn’t get along with their past managers. You tell them you can look at your employee engagement survey results to check manager satisfaction in those departments to identify a trend. They tell you not to bother because that data isn’t accurate. After all, it was from the last quarter. Plus, they were isolated incidents – not a trend – they tell you.
A bit annoyed by their dismissive attitude and worried that your team needs to improve your manager training program, you decide to investigate further. You look at the departments’ employee engagement survey results with the spike in transfers and notice that opinions on managers weren’t consistent. Some employees loved their managers, some didn’t, and some didn’t feel strongly about them either way. All the surveys were consistent: most employees felt like they weren’t contributing enough in their current department because broken systems and policies were holding them back.
You realize that these transfers weren’t employees trying to escape bad managers; they were employees trying to find ways to have a more meaningful career within your company and get around organizational red tape. This issue must be resolved because every employee in that role will experience the same problems.
You bring this new evidence to your senior leaders and prove the transfers are unrelated to manager satisfaction. Instead, you use the data and your analysis to present them with three options: either fix the issues to remove the talent “leak,” accept it because the source of the leak provides benefits that outweigh the cost of the transfers, or improve your hiring practices to hire people who are not concerned about these issues. With this new information, they agree this is a deeper-rooted issue than they had initially thought.
Confronting the non-confrontational
People are also dismissive of HR data because they aren’t ready to confront a problem head-on. Humans are wired to resist change, even when it can benefit us in the long term. Admitting that we have made mistakes, need help, or failed can be highly challenging for many people, especially in high-risk, high-competition, or low psychological safety cultures. Sometimes you have to remind senior leaders that their teams’ issues don’t directly reflect their efforts.
Unfortunately, you do need to confront issues head-on, even when the recipient is uncomfortable, angry, or dismissive. You must encourage them to leave their ego at the door, keep an open mind, and listen to what you have to say. After all, you’re here to help them make their teams more efficient and effective.
Your company has two offices: a warehouse and your corporate headquarters. In the warehouse, your employees work physically demanding jobs, get paid close to minimum wage, and have little autonomy. At your company’s corporate HQ, your employees work desk jobs, receive higher salaries, and have more influence over the company’s overall business strategy.
After your most recent employee engagement survey, you’re surprised to see that your warehouse location had significantly higher engagement scores than your corporate headquarters. When you present these results to your leadership team, you get a lot of pushback. Your CEO tells you there’s no way that could be possible. After all, he works in the HQ office and can attest to how great it is. He says there’s been a lot of change recently, so that’s probably throwing the results off. Caught off-guard by his reaction, you agree to give the numbers a second look.
After the meeting, you pour over the numbers but can’t find anything wrong with your data. You realize there are significant issues at your HQ if people who spend the whole day on their feet in a hot warehouse could be more satisfied and engaged than their corporate team. You know this company is your CEO’s pride and joy, and he has every right to be protective of everything he’s built over the years, but if this trend continues, the business will suffer. You have to get through to him.
Instead of discussing the data in an executive team meeting this time, you bring up the results in a private 1-on-1 meeting. You come prepared to have a difficult conversation and break things down again for your CEO: your corporate team is miserable while your warehouse team is happy and engaged, even though every employee in your HQ office has more power, recognition, and autonomy than most warehouse employees. You suggest that there’s a more significant cultural issue at play here that must get addressed. Otherwise, employees will burn out or leave the company.
After some reassurance, your CEO understands that this cultural issue is not a reflection of his efforts and agrees a larger change needs to be made.
No matter the situation, HR teams have one thing they can always depend on: data.
Employee engagement surveys are a powerful tool in your HR arsenal when preparing for a political battle. Not only do they give you a general pulse on the health of your workplace, but they also let you isolate office, department, and team trends that can help you have more persuasive conversations.
Acknowledging workplace issues can be difficult for some people, but keeping things factual rather than personal can ensure everyone’s on the same page and ready to put the business’ best interest first.