In Praise of Employee Satisfaction

After participating in two judicial conferences recently, in which the idea of surveying court employee opinions (see Measure 9 of the CourTools) was met with considerable skepticism, especially by judges, I was particularly struck by a Toyota magazine ad that pictured a group of smiling and seemingly satisfied Toyota plant workers. The ad read in part:

Being a good corporate citizen starts with hiring lots of good citizens. What’s a good corporate citizen? It’s about people. People who care about what they do and how they do it. And at Toyota, we know these people pretty well. Because we hire them every chance we get. … [They] take pride in everything they do. Quality, teamwork and dependability, that’s what they are all about. [They] care about doing what’s right; at work as well as in their communities. They really are good citizens. Which in turn makes Toyota a better corporate citizen. Isn’t nice when things work out?

In an article titled “No Satisfaction,” Charles Fishman (Fast Company, December 2005/January 2007) writes about why Toyota thrives as other carmakers struggle. Toyota’s “genius” is a competitiveness that is “quiet, internal, self-critical,” says Fishman. “It is rooted in an institutional obsession with improvement that Toyota manages to instill in each one of its workers, a pervasive lack of complacency with whatever was accomplished yesterday.” The Toyota workers apparently learned that, as Lily Tomlin noted, the road to success is always under construction.

Caring Deeply About What We Do

Toyota and other companies realize what many courts seem not to appreciate in practical terms. Namely, organizations succeed when they get their employees to care about what they do and how they do it. It’s that profoundly simple. Sure, most court managers will acknowledge that the engagement, commitment, energy and enthusiasm of the court’s workforce is a valuable asset, but is their recognition anything more than a cliché – like continuous quality improvement – that is often repeated but has little practical meaning?

That’s where Measure 9, Court Employee Satisfaction, comes in. Its purpose is to assess and to improve how employees think about the work that they do. It asks court employees to register their agreement with simple statements -- like “My coworkers care about the quality of services and programs we provide” and “I am proud that I work for the court.” Managers can slice and dice the results by individual statement, by department or unit, and by court location. They can learn and improve.

Consider this. “Someone in the court cares about me as a person,” is an item in the Court Employee Satisfaction Survey. We know that people who have a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be engaged and committed to their jobs. Seven times! They get more done in less time, are more innovative, and more likely to share new ideas. (See Made2Measure, Friendships in the Workplace Good for Court Performance, August 14, 2006).

We Need to Be Better

So what about the skeptics I encountered at the two judicial conferences who thought employee surveys are a waste of time? I know that some believe – I know because they told me so – that surveying employee satisfaction is a bit “touchy-feely” and “too subjective,” not the hard-nosed business approach to management that they think is expected of them. Looking at measures like clearance rate and time-to-disposition makes sense, but trying to instill meaning and a different thinking about the work we do in the courts seems too much like group therapy. It makes them uncomfortable, they say.

This attitude is, I think, changing slowly as more and more courts experiment with measures of employee satisfaction, growth and learning. For example, the Court Employee Satisfaction Survey was conducted on a statewide basis in Utah in September. The results are available on the court systems’ intranet site and the Administrative Office of the Courts will be focusing efforts to address areas for improvement identified by the survey results.

But I think we need to do a better job at convincing the skeptics. We need to point out that paying attention to workforce strength is about as hard-nosed as it gets. We need to demonstrate that individual workers – judges and other court employees – are not necessarily limited to the productivity of 1 FTE (full-time-equivalent) worker, as they are in workload assessments. We need to be better at showing that one engaged employee who cares about what her or she does and how it is done can do the work of many.

Think of what a whole team, an entire department, could do.

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