How to Translate People Data into Human Stories

By Steffen Maier, writer
Jun 14, 2017
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Here are some tips that will help you win over audiences at any level in the organization.

Julie is nervous about her forthcoming meeting with the executive board. As HR director of her company, she noticed a significant dip in employee engagement right around the annual performance appraisal period. She goes into the meeting armed with her engagement data and a proposal to change the current system which has been in place since the company’s inception.

Having worked with hundreds of HR managers to implement new performance appraisal processes within their organizations, what I’ve seen to be the most challenging step they face is not actually creating a brand new process, but communicating the need for change effectively.

This is a common challenge for people from any department. Whether in HR, IT, marketing or sales, when communicating with other departments, we can often get lost in translation with statistics and data that have a great impact on our own thought-process, but which can be lost on others. Some would say IT often has the most difficult problem with this. Every time they have to get everyone to take an extra security measure it takes a barrage of email reminders, step by step instructions and finally threats of being kicked out of the system for their non tech colleagues to finally adopt the new process.

However, I’d argue that HR often has an even more difficult time convincing, first executives, then the wider company of the need for change. The importance of employee engagement, turnover and recruitment has significantly elevated the necessity of the department within the business world over the past few years. However, communicating the need for change using people data still falls on deaf ears when it’s linked to higher costs and time needed to replace deeply ingrained processes. Rather than relying on people data, learning how to translate this information into effective stories about your people will solve the biggest problem facing HR: gaining buy-in.

When used correctly, storytelling is an effective tool that can be used to facilitate change management and even influence culture. Here are some tips that will help you win over audiences at any level in the organization.

Avoid jargon and focus on your audience

In this TedTalk, communications teacher Melissa Marshall describes how she taught a group of engineers and scientists to share their passion with others. While she focused on translating the scientific to a non-scientific audience, the same lessons can be applied to any field.

Whether you’re talking with the C-level, managers or employees each audience will have a different stake in the information you’re presenting. Though keeping up engagement levels may be key for your department, this doesn’t mean as much to others. Start with the impact it will have on your audience’s key interests.

Executives will be most concerned about the impact your information has on the business. If you’re suggesting a change, what will be the costs associated with action and inaction? How will it benefit the business in the long term?

For managers and employees, it’s important to focus on how the information will impact their role and team dynamics. How will it help them achieve their goals and what will it take to get to a point where they’re seeing the benefits?

Create human stories

Rather than using terms like engagement and turnover, create a very real story about how the data is impacting your company or individuals.

Much of the success of the popular photography series, Humans of New York, is based on the connection created when confronted with an individual’s personal story. Employee personas and journey maps can be powerful tools to help your HR team better understand how individuals experience your company. These tools can similarly be useful in creating stories which will resonate with others.

If you’re teaching your managers about unconscious bias and the impact it can have on performance appraisals, start with a story about how Anna, a female engineer at xyz, became frustrated with the process and decided to leave her company because her achievements consistently went unrecognized by her manager.

Provide solutions

In a talk at Google’s 2016 re:Work event, Michelle Gielan, founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research, explained that positive messages greatly increase the likelihood that your audience will take action. While it’s ok to present negative impacts, providing solutions alongside them will create a positive spin and fuel the brainstorming process. 

In a study her team conducted, all participants were given an article about hunger in the US, however, one group was also given a set of possible solutions such as fundraising or donating to a local food bank. They found that being presented with possible responses to the problem greatly encouraged their ability to analyze and come up with possible action plans.

For example, research shows that 22% of employees would rather call in sick than face their performance appraisal. Consider the steps you would have to take if this data came from your company. When presenting the problem to the executive level, calculating the average cost of lost productivity for these absences would help to capture their attention from the outset.

Then describing the human side of the story will help get them into the mindset of their employees. What are the psychological aspects at play? Maybe they’re only receiving feedback once a year which is tied to their compensation and bonuses. When appraisals are directly linked to an employee’s paycheck they can be more likely to elicit stress, rather than the motivation to improve.

Finally, end with some concrete researched ideas that will help you change your workforce’s mindset towards the performance appraisal process. For example, introducing more frequent performance focused check-ins that enable employees to track how they’re doing throughout the year, eliminating end of the year surprises.

Don’t have enough info to create a story?

If it’s too big a jump to draw conclusions from the data you received, consider going more in-depth with a survey or some qualitative interviews to understand the why. For example, if your company is experiencing a high turnover of new hires consider creating a survey that asks key questions that will give you the answers you need, such as, “have you received sufficient training from your manager during the first six months of your employment,” and “do your current tasks meet the expectations you had upon joining the organization?” Collecting this qualitative people data will not only help you create a complete story, but also demonstrate to your workforce that their opinions matter. 

Steffen Maier is an expert in the field of HR tech and performance management and a recognized thought leader in Human Resources innovation, with extensive experience and knowledge surrounding feedback, engagement, organizational culture and successful workplace practices. Steffen’s position as co-founder and CMO of New York based HR tech company Impraise also sees him assist organizations with the transition from the annual performance review to a more impactful approach of real-time, 360-degree feedback and peer coaching. He has successfully implemented this beneficial approach to performance management in a variety of international organizations. Steffen has won multiple awards in the field, including 2nd place in the JIBS Entrepreneurship challenge and 4th place in the Lisbon Challenge, beating over 500 applicants. He also holds a master's degree in strategic entrepreneurship, and regularly contributes to a large variety of publications, some of which include Fast company, BizzJournals and CMS Wire. Steffen also has a long-standing role as a regular contributor for Entrepreneur & CMSWire among 30 more blogs, where he shares his insights into organizational culture, feedback and other trending topics in the Human Resources, management and business sectors. He is Y Combinator alumni, and a founding board member of HR Tech NL: an Amsterdam based initiative which seeks to build a community of like minded industry members to establish how technology can help develop current HR practices. Steffen is also a recognized public speaker and has shared his knowledge at multiple events including HR Core Lab, HR Tech World, the Accenture Innovation awards and Beyond HR.
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