Several years ago, the business and administrative services division of a large nonprofit institution was facing serious troubles. Its talented workforce had become demoralized and burned out, and no wonder. The organization’s management corps was minimally trained. Its far-flung departments had trouble communicating with each other. Its 17 departments had become 17 silos, rarely collaborating. There were almost as many organizational strategies as there were staff members. And to top it all off, the organization lacked important resources.

The division’s management decided to use our organizational checkup survey to measure burnout across the six areas. All employees were given the opportunity to fill out this probing questionnaire, which was locally retitled the “Let’s Hear It! Survey.” Ninety percent of the 1,100 staff replied with gusto, adding reams of free-form comments.

Administering the survey, we observed many telling moments. In a particularly troubled wing of the organization, six supervisors refused to take the survey as long as their common manager was in the room. About 70 staff took the survey in one of five languages other than English. (Oral translation was provided in Spanish, Cantonese, Laotian, Vietnamese, and Tagalog.) These staff members, for whom English was a second (or third) language, showed remarkable enthusiasm for the survey – the first time ever that they had been invited to communicate in the workplace in their native language.

The survey results showed that the biggest problem areas were fairness and values. For instance, the staff felt that favoritism guided promotions, and that a special bonus program was not actually based on merit. Employees from every frontline unit were formed into committees, charged with examining the survey results for their unit and with developing initiatives for change. One committee, for example, worked to develop a distinguished service award that would be judged as a fair way to reward people who had made exceptional contributions to the organization’s goals. A year later, a second survey showed that these changes had led to successful improvements in all six areas, but especially the targeted ones of fairness and values.

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