The mainstream portrait of employee engagement is a utopian scene where smiling employees work harmoniously and collaborate effectively as productivity skyrockets.
But the sobering truth is that creating true employee engagement within your company is a painful process that is often both messy and difficult. I’ve focused an inordinate amount of time on my company’s culture over the last two years. I’ve listened intently, signed onto software programs to collect and analyze data on employee engagement and sent out hundreds of emails asking for anonymous feedback.
The process has been painful at times, but that pain has led to a better culture for our nationwide mortgage company.
Don’t believe all the hype about company culture being all rainbows and sunshine. If you want a truly world-class culture, you have to go through some difficult times and endure some pointed criticism. But those painful moments are the key to authentic employee engagement.
Here are three difficult—and sometimes painful—steps every organization should take to create true employee engagement within their cultures:
1. Listen to the good—and bad.
Employee engagement is painless during the good times. Employees love you. Their feedback is positive and affirming. Company culture is almost effortless.
But even great companies go through difficult periods, and fast-growing companies find that growth spurts come with growing pains. During these times, true, transparent communication and employee engagement can be painful. The employees who were praising you suddenly begin criticizing you. If you have an honest and open employee engagement structure, feedback can be brutally honest and pointedly direct.
This is the most important time to listen. If you listen to praise but ignore criticism, you do not have true employee engagement. It takes a thick skin, but listening to criticism will give your employee engagement program a depth and meaning that is lacking in more superficial engagement programs.
2. Peel back the layers with intriguing questions.
Every manager knows that employees express themselves in different ways. Some don’t need prompting to share their opinions and ideas. Others need to be invited before they feel comfortable giving their feedback.
Asking questions is a great way to make sure employee engagement includes all employees, even the quiet ones.
In employee surveys, I often ask short, thought-provoking questions like, “If you owned the company, what is the first thing you would change?”
Asking questions is an invitation for employees to express their feedback, but it also channels opinions around important topics. Unstructured feedback can be so broad and disorganized that it becomes useless. If you are trying to get employee feedback on the company’s training program or management structure, the last thing you want is employees complaining about the dirty dishes in the company kitchen sink.
Structure feedback by sending out pointed questions that will generate thoughtful and useful feedback on specific programs or procedures. Then add one or two open-ended questions to allow staff to express what is on their minds independent of your direction.
3. Pan for gold in engagement data.
Just about every company collects some level of data on employee engagement, even if it is only survey answers. But like many other forms of data, the information is often collected and then warehoused, never to be seen or used again.
Many executives are obsessive about analyzing and monitoring financial data, productivity levels, efficiency figures and other forms of data. But when it comes to employee engagement, they often ignore data altogether and launch programs based on personal opinions or gut feelings.
When employee engagement data is collected regularly, it reveals trends and can pinpoint problems within the company before they balloon into full-fledged crises. It can signal that a certain department of the company needs more resources, training or manpower.
I recently reviewed our internal employee net promoter scores, looking for month-over-month variations and trends. The data clearly showed some of our lowest scores coming in for our company’s training program, something we had already been planning to expand and strengthen. The data, however, spurred immediate action to bolster our training for all employees.
We hired a senior vice president of training and set a company goal to conduct 2,000 hours of training for the quarter. The data, and early detection of a trend within that data, helped us make an immediate company decision as a direct result of regular employee engagement, and helped avert a long-term training problem.
Consistency is key here. When you collect data consistently, the data-analysis possibilities really open up. You can see morale dipping from month to month, or dissatisfaction with certain programs rising or leveling off. Make sure surveys contain some consistent questions month over month and year over year so you can analyze trends.
Data should be an important piece of employee engagement, but don’t let it overwhelm your employee engagement program. Keep the human heart and personal connection of employee engagement while still using the power of data to make it more efficient, effective and democratic.
Darius Mirshahzadeh is CEO of The Money Source. A version of this article originally appeared Entrepreneur.com. Copyright © 2015 Entrepreneur Media, Inc. All rights reserved.