We Have a Learning Disability

Recently, it has struck me that we have a collective learning disability.

In the early 1960s, Xerox did some landmark work on customer satisfaction. What they found was this: employee satisfaction yields customer satisfaction, which in turn yields profitability. We have all studied this; we all believe it; we virtually all ignore it.

In Practice What You Preach, David Maister performed his own study on professional service firms (PSFs). He found that employee satisfaction yields customer satisfaction, which in turn yields profitability. More specifically, he writes in Chapter 9, entitled The Path to Performance, “It turns out that we can prove that if an average office increased its performance by going from an average of ‘somewhat agree’ (a 4 of 6 on his scale) to ‘agree’ (5 of 6) on the staff’s rating of quality and client relationships, this would cause a doubling of its financial performance.” (Italics his, bold mine.)

It is important to note that both the Xerox study and Maister’s study establish causal relationships, not correlative, but causal. In short, increasing the satisfaction of your employees will cause an increase to financial performance!

In my speaking engagements, I have begun asking how often the participants measure financial performance. The answer is most often monthly. I then ask how often they measure employee satisfaction. The answer, most given, is not at all, and at best, yearly. Is this not insane?

My proposal would be to begin doing a monthly employee satisfaction survey. I suggest as a model, the survey used by Marcus Buckingham in his book, First, Break All the Rules. It is a 12-question short-answer survey that takes about 5 minutes at most to complete.

I have implored organizations to do this. No one has. Why? I can only think of two possible answers:

    1. We really do not want to know.
    2. We have a learning disability.


  1. Ed, I’m as amazed and frustrated as you are. But there are some other possibilities about why people don’t take action. First of all, something can be (in fact, usually is)obvious but not easy. (there’s an article on my website called ‘Strategy and the Fat Smoker,’ all about the personal and business things we know we should do but don’t.

    Also, most managers were trained in financila and marketing things, but were usually completely untrained in employee motivation. Telling them it leads to profits won’t get them to do it if no-one has ever told them how to do it.

  2. Ed Kless says:

    David, I read your article with great interest and as usual, you have provided insight. I believe you are correct in your assessment that strategy is hard, and often obvious. One of my favorite quotes from Ronald Reagan is “There are simple answers, they’re just not easy.”

    One key difference is that the typical “fat smoker” does not (usually) complain that they wish they could be slim and nicotine-free while continuing to over eat and smoke. (Until the health crisis, of course, as you mention.) Most folks I have encountered have your reaction “Get out of my face.”

    To clarify my original post, I am speaking of people who state that they want to change. “Yes, I want to improve my bottom line. I want to improve my customers experience with our firm; I want to improve my employee retention. But, give me the small painless thing I can do (like a short employee survey), forget it, too hard.”

    It has been my experience that even if a) folks say they want to change and b) you tell them “how”; they don’t do anything. To me that is a learning disability. A book that has truly captured the spirit of this concept is Peter Block’s The Answer to How Is Yes. He asserts that the use of most questions beginning with the word How are many times defense mechanisms against change. The poser of the question “How do you do it” (whatever it is) is really saying, “I refuse to change, but since I can’t say that, I will just ask how instead.”

    Overall, I think we agree. I have read most of your books and recommend them on a regular basis.

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