Who controls employee experience?

What did you experience at work today? Was it satisfying? Frustrating? Exciting? Boring? Energizing? Tiring? Does what you experienced really matter?

Evidently, it matters to your employer. Companies invest a lot of money in trying to improve the way employees evaluate their work experience. They conduct climate surveys to learn more about how you feel about your work experience. They provide leadership training to help your managers understand what motivates and engages you. They create rewards programs, offer flexible working arrangements and experiment with new office environments with the goal of improving your work experience. Employee experience matters to employers because there is mounting evidence that your experience plays a significant role in the experience of your customers and the success of your enterprise.

Still, this does raise a question:  Who actually controls the quality of your experience? 

A number of years ago, a colleague and I consulted to a company in Japan on an extended series of initiatives in which our goal was to improve employee experience (i.e. experience of inclusion, engagement and productivity) as represented by results on the company’s climate survey. Since employee experience was treated as the responsibility of management, we started with a top-down approach. We helped the managers decipher the survey data and come up with plans to improve the experience of their employees. Our initial efforts met with significant success as the initiatives led to impressive improvements on the specific items that had been selected as high priority on the climate survey. Sadly though, after a cycle or two of the climate survey, the results in those priority areas often declined to their original levels. It seemed our top-down efforts hadn’t made a sustainable impact on the experience of the employees.

Wondering if we might get better results by broadening involvement in these initiatives, we also tried including whole organizations and teams. The managers and employees who joined these initiatives loved them. They not only enhanced esprit de corps, but also triggered significant jumps in results on the climate survey. Unfortunately, the results of these initiatives were also ephemeral.

Eventually, we began to question a basic assumption underlying our efforts. Were we wrong to expect that managers or even employees would be able to “fix” their experiences in a systematic, uniform way? Who controls experience anyway?

This question led us to embark on a new approach. Rather than expecting the managers to coordinate the improvement of their employees’ experiences, we went to the source of those experiences:  the employees themselves. In our next round of initiatives, we facilitated a process in which the participants were brought together to reflect, ideate and plan actions to improve their own experience. We asked each individual to recall times when they had experienced something very satisfying at work. Then, we had them recall the factors that came together to make those experiences satisfying. We used a similar approach to pull together some data on less satisfying work experiences.

Having established a data set for each participant, we distributed quick summaries of research from a broad range of potentially relevant fields. The participants looked for data to help them make sense of their own experiences. Next, we provided them with simple planning tools and a peer coaching framework that enabled them to consciously plan experiments to create more satisfying experiences in the next few weeks. After some workplace experimentation, we followed up with sessions in which they shared what they had learned so they could integrate elements of each other’s experiments. We also provided them with self-management tools. They designed and integrated behavioral nudges into their own routines to convert their experiments into sustainable, automated habits.

The results were striking. A year or so after we started these employee-driven experience initiatives, the employees’ responses on the Great Place to Work survey earned the company the top ranking in Japan. The company also reported improved employee retention numbers. In an interview in a major Japanese business magazine, employees noted that what they found satisfying about their work experience was that they were given a high degree of freedom to make choices about how to manage their own work and lives.  Many also reported that they were impressed that the company provided resources to support them in making better choices and had even changed some policies based on information that had been fed back up to the leadership committee.

Around the time that we were beginning to see the impact of these employee-driven initiatives, we found research that seemed to explain some of the success of this approach. Daniel Pink’s Autonomy (I prefer the nuances of the term Agency), Mastery and Purpose formula fit well. Through their action experiments, the people in our initiatives experienced the agency of choosing what they personally wanted to experience and what they would do to experience it. As they planned and carried out their experiments, they experienced the mastery (or Growth) that came with finding out which actions produced the desired results and which ones didn’t.

Before we all became agile, concepts like self-organization  and communities of practice received a lot of attention. Management gurus like Peter Drucker wrote about the transformational potential of communities based on horizontal connections. In our initiatives, we looked for ways to put these ideas into practice. We created space for the employees to connect with each other and ideate together about how they could create the kind of work experiences they wanted. Their interactions in these horizontal communities enhanced their sense of belonging and affinity with their peers and the organization. Experiencing several cycles of action and results that were simultaneously self-guided and connected enhanced the employees’ sense of both self-efficacy and belonging.  They were contributing together to something that they themselves considered to be meaningful. Their sense of purpose was enhanced by knowing that they themselves were creating experiences that enhanced their satisfaction and productivity both individually and collectively.

In some cases that contribution extended further than they themselves probably expected. We were gratified to see that some of the participants’ experiments led to changes in the companies policies and organizational habits that had a positive impact on colleagues who we had never met and who never participated in one of our initiatives. This was around the same time that research on the power of social networks – particularly the concept of small world networks as described by Duncan Watts – was starting to enter the mainstream. Our experiments seemed to confirm that individuals empowered to take purposeful action sometimes create waves of change that flow through their networks to have a positive impact on people outside their immediate social circle.

We can, of course, only claim partial credit for the improvements in employee experience and the strong survey results. There were other things going on that undoubtedly contributed to the improvements. It was clear, though, that those who joined our initiatives played a role in driving an upswing in employee engagement.

We drew a number of conclusions from our experience trying to improve employee work experience:

1. Experience is subjective,  diverse and variable.

  • Since experience is subjective, it is difficult to shape someone else’s experience in a predictable way.
  • Each individual’s experience is unique. Ask two different people about the same event and you will find that there are common patterns in what they describe, but there are also significant differences.
  • Experience is by nature variable and influenced by many variables. Sometimes we feel great about how things are going. Sometimes we don’t. It is unrealistic to expect to always feel things are great.

2. Individuals can exert control over some aspects of their work experience.

  • While it is not possible for employees to take complete control of their work experience, it is possible for them to take initiative to create time and space to do a few things that they know will increase the quality of their work experience.  
  • The memory of a few satisfying experiences from each day or week seems to compensate for the longer periods of time that are less satisfying. 
  • Employees seem to get significant satisfaction from the experience of making choices for themselves about priorities they have chosen for themselves.

3. Though each person’s experience is unique, much of that experience is created socially.

  • Employees satisfaction is enhanced by positive connections with colleagues. We found that nearly all participants became extremely engaged when we gave them an opportunity to learn from and contribute to each other’s experiments.
  • When individuals are empowered and supported to take purposeful action, their actions can create waves that flow through social networks to have a broad and positive impact even on the experience of people with whom they do not directly work.

We concluded that the fastest way to improve employee experience might be creating time and space for employees to take initiative to plan and conduct experiments to improve their own experiences. When we allow people to take ownership of their own work and work experiences they often come up with ideas that have more impact than the plans and programs we or management can create for them. Moreover, if we encourage them to connect with others as they experiment, their ideas sometimes trigger profound and positive changes for their colleagues and the organization itself.

Our experience facilitating this process left us wondering if the same principles might apply to the way employees are managed in general. What assumptions might be hindering the creation of the “empowered” workplaces that we encounter more frequently in management articles than in real workplaces?

© Dana Cogan 2017-2020 and 2022, all rights reserved.


Drive:  The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink

Six Degrees:  The Science of a Connected Age by Duncan J. Watts

Nexus:  Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Science of Networks by Mark Buchanan

Google has also conducted extensive research on what drives effective teams which is very consistent with our experience. For details, see: https://rework.withgoogle.com/print/guides/5721312655835136/

For a more recent example of how empowering employees leads to a better experience and better results for the employees, company and shareholders, listen to: https://www.npr.org/2022/05/23/1100655636/a-factory-in-illinois-has-an-innovative-approach-to-employee-wellness

For research on the impact of small positive interactions with people with whom you have weak ties on your own well-being and the well-being of others, listen to this interview with Gillian Sandstorm on Hidden Brain:


For research on the power of “conversational receptiveness” (a variation on maintaining curiosity or at least the appearance of curiosity in a partner’s perspective during conflict), listen to this interview with Julia Manson on Hidden Brain:


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