Part 1 – The Poison
High stakes tests, surveys and assessments have been the standard tool of measuring the knowledge and aptitude of students, instructional effectiveness and ability of educators. Likewise, these tools are also used to measure business leadership and the morale of their workforce. They also happen to be some of the worst methods of accurately measuring any of the aspects for which they supposedly provide empirical data. The true problems occur when decisions are made based on the ‘results’ of these assessments – they are often huge changes that largely make the opposite impact than what was intended.
For students, the high stakes test dictates whether or not they get to move up a grade level or possibly whether or not they will graduate. For teachers, test results can dictate their status as professional educators as well as their pay and even the amount of funding their school will receive from the state. In some cases, poor results on these tests can lead to a state government completely taking over the district from an administrative level. As well, there isn’t typically any actual direct monetary investment made to improve facilities, access to books and updated technology or even better pay for teachers in the case of a state takeover. What makes this worse is a three-fold multiplier of poor strategy of data collection, corrupt decision making by profiteering politicians and “educational leaders”, as well as hypocritical solutions for economically/geographically manufactured problems.
Similar methods of assessments and data collection happen in the business world as well.
Much like standardized tests, many businesses (large and small) have surveys that go out to their workforce to measure morale, company culture, leadership effectiveness, team atmosphere, etc. These surveys function similarly for those in leadership roles as test results do for teachers. For example, if the scores are below a certain threshold in certain areas, leadership has to attend meetings and classes in order to improve in the areas where they scored poorly. If the scores are up to par or high enough they are ‘off the hook’ – until the next ones come out a year later.
If you disagree about standardized tests and think they are a good way to measure student performance, future success or anything else – ask anyone that has ‘passed’ one of these tests how many times they used anything from a standardized test after graduation? As long as someone passed the test no one cared to have a conversation about the subject matter after receiving a passing test score. The only time the information is talked about is if there was a ‘failure’ and suddenly question #15 about the use of the Erie Canal in 1835 is something more than a Double-Jeopardy answer.
In business culture (much like in education) there are set times of the year for employee surveys. The preparation for ‘survey season’ from the perspective of the financial stakeholders (leadership effected by the results) is based on achieving high enough marks in the employee survey in order to maintain employment, eligibility for an annual raise promotion or potentially, a promotion.
What happens in schools and work environments in the months and weeks leading up to the assessments is predictable. The financial stakeholders focus on what they need to do in order to attain high marks. In education it is referred to as ‘teaching to the test’. In the business world it takes many forms, but generally it ends up being something along the lines of someone being the supervisor their team actually wants and needs so they (the leader) get the desired scores. Naturally, a leader that finds it necessary to make sweeping positive changes in how they treat anyone on their team in the weeks leading up to a workforce assessment is a sign of two things: 1) The assessment is inaccurate and 2) the leader in question may not be doing such a great job – and they should have a conversation with their own supervisor. The conversation will most likely never happen because high marks on the assessment are enough to tell supervisors that ‘everything is fine’.
The actions taken by stakeholders in both cases show a stark contrast and downright hypocritical view of what they are supposed to be doing during the rest of the year – according to their flawed measurement system.
The question of fairness and validity in any assessment is paramount. The primary function of any assessment is to accurately measure meaningful information in order to determine what is working and what needs to be improved. If the assessment delivery date, content, stakeholders and consequences of those results are all known before the assessment is given – is it still a valid assessment? If the pressure to pass a test is so great that it literally effects the stress level and therefore the performance of a student on the test is it a valid method of measurement? Furthermore, do the results of these assessments accurately measure educators, business leaders, schools or businesses?
Students cheat on assignments and tests because as a society we place more value on high marks than we do in learning. That statement has been and will continue to be brought up and debated in many schools and colleges. However, there is a lot of truth in that statement when it comes to any metric we use to supposedly measure people in a qualitative manner.
The impending judgement(s) of a workforce assessment is high stakes for professionals in executive and upper-management positions as well as at the departmental level. The stress of receiving high marks can make the difference between extra meetings, work improvement plans or demotions and extra paid time off, on-the-job perks or a promotion. As we found out with the housing market collapse in 2008 – you can’t hide behind poor business practices – no matter how much data you use to cover it up and hope to have a lasting and accurate measurement of performance. If as Gellius stated, “Truth is the daughter of time.” – we should have more truth than we can handle at this point. The next step after finding the truth about problems is finding the solutions.
Part 2 – The Remedy
There is some good news. The solutions are accessible and unique to every business. We also happen to be in a fantastic situation during a global pandemic to look at the validity of our assessments from beginning to end.
The first way an annual assessment can be changed in order to provide more accuracy is to make assessments more frequent. This doesn’t mean that every employee needs to sit down and take a survey each quarter. It simply means that as each week and month goes by we should be assessing performance, getting to know our workforce on a level that allows us to measure productivity and efficiency in real time.
If a high performing employee experienced a close family member or friend having a prolonged illness over the last few months it might drastically change their stress level, morale, production and even attendance. If the annual survey were to come out during this time every answer would be skewed and accuracy wouldn’t be an option. For someone in a leadership role that has been trying to ‘keep the ship from sinking’ – they have been left to deal with making the best situation for employees that suddenly have poor attendance , low morale, lack of job security, childcare issues, long irregular hours, overtime, etc. How will their leadership survey look if it were given at this time?
This is why it is necessary to implement measurable formative assessments. These become regular and expected. One thing that makes a formative assessment a better tone setter is it takes the fear out of being honest at any given moment. If a student doesn’t understand a new subject, it is a lot easier to address that situation earlier on and make needed changes. The same goes for a new or existing employee learning a new system or action in the workplace. The function of maintaining a data set tracking employee stress, morale, and attitude will allow you to have a more comprehensive measurement of their productivity, efficiency and output with more accuracy and less guesswork when ‘finding the why‘.
Finding the why is crucial when breaking down a failure or disconnect in anything. In this case, if we have a car that breaks down we don’t replace an engine three times without asking and investigate ‘why’ we are replacing it the first time. If the why was asked and investigated the first time we may have found there was a bad oil leak that caused the issue. Much like diagnosing issues with a vehicle, it isn’t until we ‘open the hood’ and look inside knowing what to look for that we find numerous issues. The part about asking and investigating ‘why’ is what gives many leadership roles a feeling of dread – because ‘why’ can get messy.
Leaders have been so focused on keeping the business on the road and running that they haven’t noticed that weird smell in the ‘back seat’ of the business. They have to turn the key just the right way to get it open and running each day. There is also a weird *thunk* sound every time the business has to make a left turn and communicate changes to their benefits package.
It is far more effective to take the time throughout the year to get a measurement of your workforce in terms of morale and all that it embodies. The best part is that by maintaining a growing knowledge of your workforce it automatically allows you to make necessary and accurate measurements you can use to take action more efficiently than you would by measuring these factors once a year. If you are in leadership roles and want to have a better idea of why and how your annual survey may seem skewed it is crucial to start assessing your workforce more regularly.
Regular weekly, bi-weekly assessments also allow for more honesty and trust. When we don’t ask how someone is doing or if a new practice is working regularly we give the perception in leadership roles that we don’t care. That’s why when the annual survey comes out there are two directions it can go. We continue down the road of not caring which then brings low marks and punitive HR PowerPoint presentations on how to be a ‘better leader’. The worst case scenario is actually when we start ‘caring’ three to four weeks before the assessment in order to maintain the illusion of active morale focused leadership and receive high marks by manipulating the environment and those we are measuring. We avoid acknowledging the problem in an effort to also avoid trainings that are viewed as discipline measures rather than support and opportunities for positive growth.
As we move closer to a new normal it is vital for businesses to move towards a new normal as well. Maintaining a high morale through consistent, low-pressure formative assessments is one easy way to get your workforce rolling in the right direction. The goal is to implement positive changes through regular, meaningful meetings with your workforce. Taking action after having meaningful discussions with your team such as implementing suggestions from your workforce and measuring effective and ineffective changes from week to week will allow for a more mobile and agile environment for all involved.
While you can still implement assessments and surveys to gain a larger view, it can be more beneficial to use them in a quarterly manner rather than annually. If you hire a large group of people throughout the year it is crucial to know what your new wave of employees think and feel about being a new hire (with a six-month survey) but how they view the business with fresh eyes. Taking these small steps to gain insight to your workforce is just a small way to change the entire culture of your business for the better.