Survey Gives Some Candid Feedback

August 22, 2003
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MUSKEGON — The criticism of her co-workers stung deeply.

She needed to communicate better, they told her, and she didn't do enough to offer recognition for a job well done.

But instead of taking it personally and getting defensive, Sherri King did exactly what executives at Mercy General Health Partners wanted her and other managers to do.

She used the responses from a new form of annual employee satisfaction survey instituted three years ago to learn and to become a better manager.

The manager of three primary care practices for the Muskegon health system, King took the criticism to heart, began a process of self-examination, and worked with her staff so she could do a better job in communicating and recognizing them for their efforts.

Today, the scores she receives as a manager from her employees are far better, and her department is more productive amid an improved work environment and higher employee morale.

"If you're willing to put yourself into this, it makes you take a hard look at yourself as a manager," said King, who's been with the health system for eight years.

"Opinions count," she said. "How am I going to grow as a manager if I'm not listening to the people who can help me grow as a manager? You have to listen to everybody else and the things that can make us grow and make us better."

That willingness to objectively look at what her employees were saying and how they felt about their jobs and her as a manager is a key element to the annual employee satisfaction survey Mercy General Health Partners developed following a model from The Gallup Organization.

Using 12 questions formulated through research conducted over the years that included interviews with thousands of employees and managers, the Gallup program centers on identifying workers' basic needs, the support they get from management, teamwork and professional growth.

Managers use the results to learn about the dynamics of the workplace and to improve themselves professionally, although they still need to use common sense in judging what is legitimate criticism and in balancing their response.

In the simplest terms, the logic goes, better managers help to create better employees who are far more engaged in the organization's mission. That, in turn, leads to improvements in quality, customer service, employee retention, growth and profitability.

"It's not just about knowing how your people feel. It's about knowing how to change their engagement and work with them," said Greg Loomis, vice president and chief operating office at Mercy General Health Partners.

"It has really become a well-established tool for us in understanding employee engagement," Loomis said. "There's no magic here. It really is just about people being honest and saying 'How are you feeling?' … 'Well, here's how I'm feeling and what can we do about it?'"

With about 2,000 employees, Mercy General Health Partners is one of the largest employers in Muskegon County. Managers, whose annual salary adjustments and bonuses are partly tied to survey results, are required to share the responses and then work with employees to address the issues and problems identified.

In the four years that Mercy General has used the Gallup program, the number of employees deemed "engaged" in their work has risen from 30 percent in 2001 to 39 percent in 2003. Too, the percentage of the health system's work force that is "actively disengaged" has fallen from 19 percent to 11 percent.

Both numbers are better than the U.S. average and Loomis expects the percentages for Mercy General to show further improvement.

In an industry where there is no room for error and the marketplace is increasingly competitive, Loomis said health systems like Mercy General want as many employees as possible — from nurses and lab technicians, to cooks and housecleaning staff — to be fully engaged in their work and mission.

"An engaged employee is one who is going to care about the quality of their work, not just come in and do their job. They're going to go the extra mile," said Ken Uganski, director of clinical support services at Mercy General and a Gallup program trainer.

"This is about fundamental change. This is not about telling people how to act or telling them to 'smile, patients will feel better.' You've got to understand why that person's not smiling and work there," Uganski said. "We give every employee in the organization that chance to change what is making them unhappy."

In some instances, the Gallup survey can help managers better identify employees who are mismatched in their jobs and, where possible, move them into a position where they are a better fit.

The survey operates on the premise that a motivated work force with high morale — where people enjoy their work and feel valued — also helps to reduce employee turnover, a highly desirable outcome in a business struggling to cope with worker shortages in nursing, medical technicians and imaging personnel, and pharmacists.

In that vein, Mercy General hopes the employee satisfaction survey can help it become the "employer of choice" that's able to attract and retain the best and brightest in the health care profession.

Eighty-eight percent of Mercy General's employees volunteered to take the satisfaction survey this year, nearly double the participation rate of 2002.

Since 2000, the survey has helped managers identify numerous ways to improve themselves professionally and to improve the workplace. "Fixes" have ranged from addressing large issues that can become obstacles to optimum performance to small, nagging issues that erode employee morale.

King, for instance, was able to rid the office of one particular annoyance simply by requesting a new copy machine in her capital budget. The lack of a copier apparently had been a major bother for some of the staff.

One way she sought to improve communication was to hang a board just outside her office. When she was gone, anybody with information they needed to pass along — or with a comment, concern, idea, quibble or complaint — could post a note for her.

She said she's also become better at hearing and acting upon employee concerns.

"It's the difference from making them feel engaged and making them know they're engaged," King said. "It's all about communication."

Chris Halberda, who supervises 70 lab employees, learned through the survey that he did a poor job in recognizing or praising good work. His "very simple" solution: He began parking his car in a different location so he would use a different entrance than he normally used. Doing so required him to walk through the department, where he would regularly greet and chat with employees on both the morning and afternoon shifts.

"I increased the chance of seeing their good work," Halberda said.

By being receptive to what employees are saying in the annual surveys — and being willing to change — many managers have seen scores improve — an indication employees view the health system as a better place to work.

Barbara Sanders, a dietary supervisor with Mercy General nearly 34 years, credits the process with improving her working relationship and interaction with employees. She said she has become a better manager, more in tune with what her employees need to do their jobs, she said.

"Employees make you; you don't make them. You need them to get the job done," Sanders said. "You either die together or survive together."

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