Views: From “magic number” to “magic question” for internal communication

Reading Time: 3 minutes

OVER the last twenty-plus years, organizations have been focused on finding a single “magic number” as the ultimate gauge of organizational health, writes Mike Klein. The two main candidates have been the “employee engagement (EE) score: or an “employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS).”

But faced with systemic downward trends in both of those measures – could it be that we are focusing on the wrong numbers and the wrong questions? 

Continue reading or listen here:

There are two key problems with EE and eNPS scores. The first is that both are based on sentiments – how employees feel – rather than on their actual words, actions or priorities. Secondly, both are aggregates, combining employee attitudes towards positives and problems rather than separating them out so they can be targeted and addressed.

To address those problems, I propose something new: a “magic question”, one that elicits highly specific answers to a single open question: “What are the top three priorities facing your organization?”

This question is “magic” for a number of reasons. 

The answers tell us whether employees, leaders and managers give official priorities the same level of importance. 

The answers identify hidden or “unofficial” priorities – which can either reflect gaps between leaders’ words and actions or highlight chronic or systemic issues that get in the way of aligning employee actions with organizational objectives. These are not things that tend to be asked about in engagement surveys or addressed directly by eNPS scores. 

Even with stated or “official” priorities, conscious or subconscious messages may emerge as perceived priorities even if not expressed officially. “Cost cutting” is one that is particularly pervasive. Macroeconomic headwinds (inflation, supply chain, labor market tightness) also may emerge as being more critical than the organization’s stated agenda, and workplace hygiene factors (communication, leadership quality) often surface as urgent for employees even if not on the organization’s official list. 

Turning those answers into numerical data can send clear messages to management about disconnects. 

When communication leaders and business leaders have differences of opinion, the business leader’s opinion prevails. It’s a game of “rock-scissors-paper” where the power of the business leader trumps the subjective expertise of the communication leader. But bringing numerical data to the table, like saying that the business leaders’ top three priorities don’t even make the employees’ top-ten list, adds some “rock” to the opinion of the communicator that a business leader will be harder pressed to ignore. 

The strongest quotes provided can be useful in confronting the assumptions held by leaders about key issues. Quotes like “everything is treated as a crisis here”, “overwhelm – too many projects and priorities”, or “attrition in critical service areas and locations” can focus attention in ways that more diplomatically worded interpretations and answers can’t. They illustrate the real word of mouth, which, if left unchecked, can quickly dominate the organization’s agenda. 

Even if the answers are collected from a subset of employees, the answers reflect real comments which have likely been shared informally inside and outside the company. And, once quantified, answers to the “magic question” can form the basis for turning internal communication from a cost center to an ROI engine by allowing the financial impact of comms interventions to be tracked, correlated and valued appropriately.

The “magic question” – by creating space for open, unaided feedback that can be easily categorized, scored and ranked – can provide actionable and targeted insights. In doing so, it provides an opportunity to enable communication leaders to deliver real, measurable and monetizable impact.

Mike Klein will be introducing “The Magic Question” in his talk on “Turning Words into Data” at IABC World Conference on 4 June in Toronto. Readers can get the IABC member rate by using the WELEAD23 discount code at

“The Magic Question” also forms the basis for Mike’s Measurement Masterclass, which is being offered next on 13 June.