The Grumpy Ones

Our team leader in New York, Graham Bobby, is a Brit who maintains a private blog. 
Here is a link  to a recent entry on the subject of employee satisfaction.

This blog offers a personal take on the discussion of what employers have a right to expect from their staff in terms of mood and attitude. Most would accept that affability was a reasonable requirement for customer facing staff, but there is a case to be made for a positive attitude to be expected from all staff.

grumpy person

It is one thing to expect a positive attitude and to recruit based on that expectation, but companies can also help themselves by taking actions to create a positive atmosphere, and here many fail. Bullying, hypocrisy and poor role modelling all contribute to poor employee satisfaction; some leaders also lazily assume that staff will share their own preferences. Many use engagement surveys, but these can be superficial and employees in many firms have become cynical after years of surveys followed by no meaningful action.

Satisfaction drives mood and attitude, and improving satisfaction offers significant business benefits. So there is real value in really listening to staff, and at a granular level. Synthetron offers a proven, cost-effective way to achieve this.

Full article here:

Synthetron works with the crowd at CSW Global

Synthetron works with the crowd at CSW Global

Synthetron CEO Joanne Celens caught audience’ interest as she addressed the tricky topic of how to make sure crowds are wise not foolish.


info chart


The group that came along to the follow-up workshop were intrigued to hear us say that the 6 C’s model of Employee Engagement wasn’t our own idea. We explained that like all Synthetron conclusions it was based on our grounded theory approach – using what we have heard from thousands of employees over the last few years.

We know what things matter because we have heard them over and over again.

Click here to see the model, which is work in progress we are happy to share, and see how your last employee engagement scored against this crowdsourced checklist. Maybe you are ready to try a new approach and level up your employee engagement to improve your score – and of course your organizational effectiveness since that is always the end goal. We’d love to discuss that with you!

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Click here to watch our CEO Joanne Celens talk about “how to make sure you get the wisdom from your crowd”

Continuity AND Transformation

Continuity AND Transformation

How to nurture the mindset for change

We might be said to be creatures of habit. But that doesn’t mean we always avoid change. In fact, change is part of our daily life. The most important aspect of implementing change in an organisation is to take the temperature first. How do the organisation’s stakeholders, including its staff and customers feel? One can then look for effective methodologies and focus on the key element of change – the people.

Major changes to one’s environment (e.g. changes to roles/processes/systems/incentives/etc.) can cause people to feel/think that they are no longer “in control”. Also, people fear loss when their environment changes (including potentially losing established work relationships with co-workers when roles and/or processes change).The more people can feel in control, the less resistance the change program is likely to encounter. This is where engagement via honest two-way-communication comes into play.

Based on many studies and our own experience we know that generally people want to change, to improve. However, in companies change projects often assume that something is wrong with the company and employees. It can be more productive to notice what is currently working (continuity) at the outset of the change effort. Honoring the past (success, achievements, structure) and present (what is working now), as well as identifying further improvements to what is already good can boost efforts. We can forget that change does not mean things are bad (although that’s usually the case). Improvement might be from bad to good, but it can also be from good to better. Nurturing the mindset for change – building willingness rather than resistance – can be a more successful approach. We call this the interdependent values of Continuity AND Transformation.

It is key in this approach to open a space to identify the emotional issues – what is it that people expect to lose and why do they think this happening? It is a vital reality check – even if there are overreactions. Asking people shows trust and opens an opportunity to understand the benefits of the future as they see it so this can be used to persuade them.

Typically four levers for change can be assessed:

  1. Do people understand the change? Is the case for change clear and compelling? Does it stand up to scrutiny?
  2. Do people like it? Do they trust it? Does it make sense and is it the right thing to do?
  3. Can people act on it? What tools, processes, systems etc. are necessary for them to act?
  4. How much do people want to act? How is the environment, momentum and appetite for change?

Helping people “believe” should always be a key step in this process. Not a note from the CEO to staff saying that something is changing and definitely not any kind of coercion, but an open and honest involvement to encourage people to be part of the change journey. With the Synthetron approach for diagnostics we assure our clients get to the real issues quicker. That’s not to say that everyone will be on board or that it is easy. Those resisting the change effort must be engaged in the effort as deeply as the typical change agents.

The fact remains that more than a few senior managers and those who might describe themselves as leaders are reticent about change – because it is a threat to their domains and comfort zones. Finding ways to work with this is part of the challenge of business.

Klaus-Michael Erben, Executive Germany 

Crowdsourcing Intelligence: Do Intelligent Questions create Intelligent Crowds?

Crowdsourcing Intelligence:
Do Intelligent Questions create Intelligent Crowds?

During the Crowdsourcing week conference in Brussels, our CEO Joanne Celens answered the question: do intelligent questions create intelligent crowds? Watch it here.

The talk has been split up in 3 parts below:

1: Crowdsourcing is in our DNA but there are pitfalls and biases to think of

2: Get the right crowd through the right process

3: Ask the right question with the right attitude

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A leadership style focusing on strict KPIs can undermine intra-company cooperation

Business culture should emphasize autonomy to empower people.

Brussels, June 23, 2014 – Managers feel under considerable pressure from imposed KPIs. They deem it possible that a leadership style empowering the employees with a high degree of autonomy could help to lower this pressure. Steering using the 80/20 principle works best to align employee engagement with company success. These are major findings of an online discussion between 25 managers of big European companies invited by the Belgian method-based consultancy Synthetron N.V.

 The discussion took place on a secure Internet platform. The participants shared and evaluated 343 ideas altogether, anonymously and in writing.

The messages that were evaluated positively conveyed the following points:

  • Managers feel pressure as an immediate consequence of imposed KPIs. ¾ of them do not agree with the way KPIs are currently used.
  • Many KPIs can result in a culture of just trying to avoid mistakes. The more KPIs are used, the more they indicate a less productive and authoritarian leadership style.
  • Top management changing goals often is insufficient reason for daily pressure of all staff.
  • Too many and too detailed KPIs and those leading to poorly thought through procedures strain cooperation within the company.
  • The participants suggest that the management concentrate on key KPIs. Executives should pay more attention to listening, delegating and communicating strategic context.
  • Most favour smarter processes in day-to-day business, not than a substantial turning away from KPIs in general.
  • If a company decided to renounce KPIs altogether, they would need to be able to articulate their vision completely and also to build on the engagement of employees acting with their own autonomy.
  • Further questions about leadership culture and about the degree of accuracy of KPIs do not show a uniform opinion.

By Michael Erben & Jeanette Kalthof

Is “bottom up” the poor cousin of “top down” in your organisation?

Is “bottom up” the poor cousin of “top down” in your organisation?

Most European Companies stick to a task oriented way of working. Managing activities step by step (operational issues) are delegated to the troops – and as this is the way the Napoleonic wars have been conducted, ‘troops’ is the exact reference for this cultural paradigm. Fashionably called empowerment, many operational issues never get on board agendas.

The opposite is true for all strategic issues – from a merger to new markets to investing into another cite it’s daily board business, it’s top-down: Intellectually challenging but in the end always a yes/no question. Top management is used to this yes/no situations. What’s mostly not on their stake is including a bottom-up understanding: Adding the ‘how’to the ‘what’. One is still on risk when bothering with the ‘how’. A spotlight on it often shows that bottom-up is not as appreciated as top-down. It’s the poor cousin of strategy. It’s put into an employee survey with results carefully filtered before they get published and cascaded down. It’s a matter of politics, of worker’s council acceptance, of securing personal data.
And last but not least it’s open a pandora’s box. However, listening, engaging many to add their wisdom, backing a decision by better understanding the needs – that’s the way a socially grown up enterprise gains attraction not the least on the talent market.

It’s change business on its best. A cultural shift – when troops count not only by numbers but by intellect.

by Michael Erben

> have a look at some cases in which we work bottom up
> experience a synthetron session in which we look for information bottom up

Mary Barra’s Staff Engagement Challenge

Mary Barra’s Staff Engagement Challenge

opinion by Graham Bobby

December 1, 2014

I enjoyed a recent extended profile in Time magazine of Mary Barra, the new CEO of General Motors, by Rana Faroohar, linked here (a subscription is required to access the full article)

Why is it that whenever we read profiles of female executives, they are interspersed with lots of copy about family and style choices, whereas these are still rarely mentioned in the case of men? I guess neither Faroohar nor Barra would want it this way, but somehow they pander to readers who still expect it. Change comes slowly in this world.


Barra is an engineer and a lifer at GM, promoted amidst a crisis that threatened the future of the company. The tip of an iceberg of safety product recalls threatened to expose a rotten culture underneath it, where not just safety but also customer focus and personal accountability were subsumed by corporate expectations. With the 2008 bailout fresh in people’s minds, public and political goodwill was going to be wafer thin, and any perceived failure could mean the end for Barra and even for GM.

Barra has had to respond decisively, and be seen to do so, without willfully killing her own lifetime employer nor losing the trust of her new staff. So far she has achieved this balance with deftness and passion, helped by her obvious love of her company, her wide existing industry network inside and outside of GM, and by a commitment to engagement.

The article explained how she has visited plant after plant, engaging with shop floor employees and hosting town hall sessions for staff, listening, showing humility, and emphasizing the culture she aspires for GM, centered around the customer.

While this is truly admirable and I wish her well, I can only wonder at her stamina and at how sustainable this model of engagement is. In trying to achieve the same in a more efficient way, this would be an excellent application of our Synthetron method.

What was she trying to achieve here? As a new CEO, she wanted to understand what her staff were saying and thinking, in all departments and all markets. As she crafted her own key messages, she could benefit from using language that resonated positively as widely as possible. She needed to dig and to listen, and be seen to be listening, to unearth the full extent of the safety failings. Finally, she wanted to demonstrate that speaking up and challenge are good, while slavishly hiding behind managers would no longer be acceptable.

She could do this in person in a couple of locations per week. She could give interviews and write memos, instantly forgotten by most employees. She could create some scapegoats, at a cost to leadership morale. She could create bulletin boards and whistleblower opportunities, likely to be treated with great suspicion by staff long used to a very different culture. All these things are helpful, but all are also slow and frustratingly limited in impact.

Synthetron could certainly have helped, and maybe still could. All of the goals can be addressed via our method, at high speed and low cost. It could not replace the other steps, but it could complement them and amplify their impact. With Synthetron, I suggest that Mary Barra could be a few steps further forward on her long road to a recovering GM.

Most of us are lucky enough not to face challenges as intense as those of Barra. But what company would not wish to know how staff were thinking, utilize resonant language, be able to unearth potential issues early and encourage honest engagement? Who is not interested in high speed, wide reach and low cost, whether to reach staff, consumers or other stakeholders?

– Graham Bobby


The 5 top reasons why it’s difficult to appease members

The 5 top reasons why it’s difficult to appease members

By Jeanette Kalthof

Last year, members of FNV (the Dutch worker’s union) gathered at an FNV Allies conference and, contrary to all expectations, voted against a proposition to merge. This once again showed that it’s difficult to gauge the opinion of members, even if they are involved every step of the way.

Why is that?

Why do so many associations struggle to understand their members?

Synthetron has moderated multiple sessions with members from different national associations and by looking at them together we have been able to draw some rather interesting conclusions.

Association committees are in a tough position.

For many, the member base is declining, the current members are the older generation,Exif_JPEG_PICTURE there are fewer and fewer new young members and there is unclear voting behaviour.

In the last five years we have been regularly conducting online dialogues for different associations with the purpose of involving their members: the ANWB , NBA (professional organization of Accountants), KNGF (Royal Association of Physiotherapists)  and FNV in Netherlands, ACCA (accountants) in UK and NCARB (architects) in the USA.

We have identified 5 important reasons which make it difficult to get insights into what members think and why their reactions are so hard to predict.

The 5 top challenges for membership organisations today

1. Members don’t agreegraph voor blog

The average percentage of messages that some people agree on in Synthetron dialogues is 17%. In sessions involving members, it’s only 13% on average and never more than 14%.

At the same time, the percentage of bipotrons – messages which people feel strongly about and which split the vote – is higher than average.
So we can say that people in Synthetron sessions for member associations agree less and disagree more than our benchmark from 1000 dialogues in a range of organisations.

2. Members like to be involved but are hard to activate.

Members are very active and positive in their dialogues than our benchmark. They are looking for an accessible, interactive, visible association that involves them in the decision making process. Face to face as well as online. However it is not easy to engage and mobilise these members. There are low levels of people showing up to participate and a lot of energy needs to be put into recruiting.

 3. Members expect a broader view from their association.

Members are no longer satisfied with the core activity of their association. Nowadays they expect a broader interpretation of the association’s role.
For example they like to see them play an active leadership role in areas like durability, ethics and technology. They also would like to see more integration – working together with other associations and institutions, maybe in other countries.
Finally, members indicate that the opinion of non-members is important too. The association of the future needs to go beyond their current boundaries.

 4. Members want a flexible association.

Members aren’t fixed on specific ways of working. They want to be organised at a sector level for certain topics and by region when it suits them. This requires an adaptive association that allows the member to choose how to define their membership. This applies to member communication, membership, way of coming into contact with other members, available knowledge and the way the association works with and for its members.

There is no more either… or…, now it’s all about and… and…

 5. Members want to be treated like they matter

What do members tell us?
“I’m important! Listen to my needs! Influence the politics, legislation, … on a national and local level for me. Give me knowledge and education on the things I need to know about. Listen to me and use your power to get it done.”

They are very demanding, they know very well what they want their association to do and have high expectations


Now, all of this may seem like members are spoilt brats stomping around constantly demanding membership organisations do everything for them. But our experience shows that when members collaborate with their associations so improvements can be made together, they do this in a very serious, constructive and positive way. There is a way forward and organisations needs to find ways to interact meaningfully in a flexible and active way with their membership to achieve that. To do nothing is to accept a steady decline.


– By Jeanette Kalthof

Feedback in Change

Listen to employees with Synthetron online dialogues

Feedback in Change

10 Lessons Learned from Crowdsourcing

Sometimes the requests from Linkedin change practitioners trigger an instant reaction with me. The question about “The greatest barrier to successful change is the pace and accuracy of feedback“ did so because my main focus has been on facilitating this feedback loop on a massive and authentic scale within organisations using crowdsourcing. Hence it motivated me to sum up my ten top lessons learned.

From experience my lessons learned to have a good feedback loops are:

1. Create a safe environment:

Organise your feedback in such a way that people can speak up “safely”, and share their problems, issues and emotions without fear so that you really know what matters. Anonymity is a great enabler here.

2. Reach out:

Involve more than the happy few closely involved in the change project and reach out to those affected by the change. However be careful not to mix people with very different levels of change impact, you gain by splitting people into groups for whom the change-experience will be similar.

3. Get feedback in a social way:

People appreciate hearing the ideas of others, to feel they are not alone, to get tips and insights, and above all to learn and allow their own ideas to be expressed in a conversation.

4. Look for feedforward:

Go beyond feedback on how things are going and ask the people also to give you their insights and wisdom to find solutions and improvements. From our experience there is great wisdom to be gained whenever you create the space for it in your conversations. It is a misconception that people are against change; they are against “bad change”. From our research of thousands of interventions we clearly demonstrate that people mainly think in enabling terms when asked to share feedback during change, i.e. what can be done better (*).

5. Ask the right, meaningful, open questions:

Listen to people in an open way (acknowledging that they are the subjects having to make the change happen). Do not measure people by asking them to respond to a set of closed questions or polls (as if they are objects of the change).

6. Balance attention of Heart, Head and Hands:

Engage your people to share their feedback on the rationale for change (Head) but also on the way they feel the change via behaviour, values, and emotions (Heart). Lastly ask them to share their more practical feedback about aspects of the change (Hands), and they will tell you what changes ito tools, budgets, competences, processes or resources will help the change to progress

7. Calibrate your feedback:

Ensure that a small number of vocal people do not get all the attention, rather find out what most find relevant, including feedback which is not commonly recognised. That way you avoid jumping to invalid conclusions (the crowdsource software can do this for you).

8. Seek feedback regularly:

Feedback “changes” during the change period. At the start, you’ll probably focus on alignment, trying to find how to overcome resistance to change. In later phases the focus is more about improving engagement, enabling you to fine tune the change by improving processes, tools or management, to accelerate your roll out in a robust way. Adapt the pace of your feedback loop to the roll out of your change phases and to your capacity to follow up (and expect results from corrective measures).

9. Understand the meaning of the feedback:

Ask yourself what the feedback means for the change project. Don’t jump to conclusions, but get the bigger picture about what are the most important issues, root causes and potential solutions at different managerial levels. Translate it into managerial implications for the change process – a “so what” analysis.

Here you can go much further than merely listening to the content of what people say. You can identify the various change forces (Head, Heart and Hands), discover effective buzz words, and perform a mindset analysis, so you know what type of communication is most likely to be effective. Some of these steps require specific competences.

10. Follow up:

Asking for feedback is an intervention: you have engaged the people to share their best ideas and opinions, so they are more involved. Recognise and thank them for their valuable feedback, then decide what you are going to do with it and act in a noticeable way. Otherwise next time you risk no longer getting their best opinions and ideas… and all the engagement you created will evaporate
If done right feedback is a positive intervention- we see change readiness increase significantly in moments of feedback (measured both in mindset analysis indicators and by just poll people’s self-assessment on the change curve at the beginning and end of a feedback session). So independent from the insights one can obtain, the process of feedback itself is a potential big change enhancer.

(*)“What Managers, Executives and Staff Tell us that Really Matters”, in Review of Business and Economics, 2011 (2), by Paul Verdin, Eric Cabocel, Joanne Celens & François Faelli.

By Joanne Celens


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Why ask the Frogs?

Why ask the Frogs?

There is a German proverb that states that when the time comes to empty the pond, one should not first consult the frogs. But is it really naïve to involve the frogs?  In many situations, I am not so sure.

What we practice every day at Synthetron follows a different philosophy. Online-discussions in a crowdsourcing-format suggest that whoever feels authenticallly involved will be ready to face changes more easily. For sure, we always meet opposition. Our main findings, however, are concerned with critical success factors making it possible even for sceptics to support the next steps in a change process.

In our practice we have learned to distrust the typical yes/no results of a survey. Instead, we try to look more deeply, into the ‘what’ and ‘how’, while guaranteeing full anonymity for the participants. This leads to honest feedback helping to trigger change:

  • If the feedback focuses on functional aspects, it is important to provide more information with regard to content.
  • If the concern is related to limited resources, missing capabilities or tight schedules, it is helpful to address priorities and to give moral support.
  • Emotional reasoning is a great challenge. Some concerns might seem to be coming from misinformation, but sometimes they indicate utter refusal. The critical success factors have to be identified to help facilitate collaboration and improve corporate culture. Meetings with the parties involved, focusing on clarifying and settling areas of friction, are indispensable for achieving concrete actions.

More than 500 online-discussions in our Synthetron format indicate three almost universal pre-conditions for the change readiness of a focus group:

  • Processes should not be too complex or self-redundant, nor should they lack flexibility.
  • New processes have to be communicated diligently.
  • Managers should plan how to handle new processes in detail and ensure support by role modelling.


To put it provocatively: do not trust the moderate applause of a management meeting. Instead, have a close look behind the scenes at how the frogs are feeling. If you detect a mindset of “They surely don’t mean me” or “If we wait and see, the budgets will soon be reduced again”, it’s a good option to involve the frogs and listen to them.


By Michael Erben