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Debbie Hance

Head Light

Head of Business Psychology

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Why don’t employee engagement surveys work?


‘The fundamental element required for an organisation to thrive and grow is having employees who are committed, motivated and engaged’.

That was the conclusion of the UK government’s 2009 review on employee engagement[1]. This and other research studies – such as those by Gallup[2] and the Corporate Leadership Council[3] – champion the transformational possibilities of engagement and seduce us with the promise of increased productivity, improved financial performance, lower attrition and absenteeism and higher levels of customer satisfaction and innovation.

In the hopeful expectation of reaching this euphoric nirvana – where employees are more motivated, happier, more committed and more involved – many organisations have embarked on their own engagement journey … only to flounder on the rocks of disappointment.

Clearly, there’s a difference between pursuing engagement and actually achieving it.

If you make an effort to address engagement and get no reward for it, that’s bad enough but there’s a cruel irony here that creates a far bigger problem. The ‘curse’ of employee engagement is that the process of trying to achieve something positive and beneficial for your employees can actually end up disengaging them. In other words, you can create exactly the opposite of what you intended.

This is because organisations ask questions in their engagement surveys about how employees feel about their work. Answering these questions brings ‘problem areas’ to the front of people’s minds. If no action is then taken to address these issues, employees are left feeling worse than they did before, as you’ve falsely raised their expectations with an unspoken promise that you’ll do something as a result.

Lack of concrete action, after an engagement survey, is the root cause of this engagement curse. Essentially, there are three reasons why no action is taken:

1. Engagement surveys don’t ask the critical questions that will pinpoint exactly what action needs to be taken. Organisations often ask generic questions about attitudes, perceptions and job satisfaction but they don’t focus on the specific issues that drive engagement or the barriers that employees face. They then get blinded by too much information. As a result, they don’t know where the real challenges lie or what actions they need to take to improve the situation.

2. Change is difficult. Altering managerial behaviour and the company culture are challenging aspirations. Strong commitment and effective project management are required to instil change in organisations but they’re rarely associated with engagement surveys.

3. Engagement is wrongly perceived as an ‘HR issue’. Engagement surveys are usually driven by HR practitioners who believe in their potential but many practitioners treat engagement as a standalone activity, measured by an external entity, that is separate from other talent management initiatives. In the eyes of employees, the survey becomes just a tick-box exercise. Nothing changes as a result and the blame for this is firmly laid at HR’s door, because engagement is seen as HR’s responsibility.

So, what’s the answer?

The answer is to turn these three negatives around:

1. Ask the right questions. At Head Light, we’ve carried out a systematic review of published sources, and engagement offerings, to uncover the factors that really influence engagement. We’ve identified 12 universal areas that fundamentally effect how people feel about their work and their employer. These are the key areas that you need to ask about in your engagement survey: wellbeing; motivation; reward and recognition; involvement; autonomy; teamwork and collaboration; purpose and meaning; relationships; trust; career/personal development; communication and performance management. Ask: To what extent do you experience this at work? And: How important is that to the way you feel? The correlation between those two questions will pinpoint where your priorities should lie.

2. Take practical action at three levels: senior executives, line managers and individual contributors. The challenge with engagement actions is to make them stick. That means people have to commit to the process. By prioritising a small number of personalised, ‘easy-to-implement’ actions in critical areas, at each of these three levels, you can create a more conducive work environment and improve any areas of disengagement. Even small changes can make a noticeable difference.

3. Devolve the responsibility for engagement to everyone in the organisation. Engagement should be driven by leaders and managers, with HR providing support, but ultimately it’s everyone’s responsibility. The way you feel about your work is largely down to you. Line managers have an influence but employees need to recognise that they choose their own attitude and they can implement their own ‘engagement actions’.

Engagement may be a concept that builds on commitment, motivation, job satisfaction and the psychological contract. One thing’s for sure though: it can pay dividends. Ultimately, the key to breaking the curse of engagement is to ask the right questions and to prioritise specific, practical, manageable actions that senior executives, line managers and individuals can take to drive engagement levels higher.

[1] MacLeod, D. and Clarke, N. (2009), Engaging for Success: Enhancing Performance through Employee Engagement. Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. London.

[2] O’Boyle, E. and Harter, J. (2013), State of the American Workplace. Gallup Inc. Washington DC.

[3] Bedington, T., Smith, D. and Chung, J. (2004). Driving Performance and Retention Through Employee Engagement. Corporate Leadership Council. Washington DC. (Catalog no.: CLC12PD3N8). 

3 Responses

  1. Culture and resources

    Thank you for your comments and certainly culture and resources are part of the picture.  As with any HR practice or intervention, we would always advise that an organisation look carefully at the prevailing culture and work on removing any barriers to success before investing in software, or before creating elaborate surveys and processes to address the presenting issues.  It would be much the same with performance management systems, 360 degree feedback and assessment processes; engagement surveys need to have the right cultural precursors in place in order to add value, and trust or fear of retribution would be among those considerations.

    Anonymity is clearly important in engagement surveys and our software has a number of checks and balances in it to ensure feedback sources are protected.  For organisations that have a mature, open culture where managers are used to receiving feedback and can be trusted to use that feedback to up their own game rather than seek revenge, there tends to be less concern around consequences and more honest feedback is provided.  Where there is a clear culture of blame, where there is a history of confidentiality breaches and inappropriate management behaviour, then of course caution is needed but in our experience, these sorts of organisations are in the minority.

    Taking the view that “We don’t trust our managers to deal constructively and responsibly with the results of an engagement survey so we don’t want to ask any questions” may only serve to perpetuate the perception that senior leaders are uninterested in hearing employees’ views.  And this is likely to suppress engagement levels further; our review found that open, two-way communication and trust were two of the key influencers over how people felt at work.  If fear is a cultural feature then there is a clear need to do something about that; granted, an engagement survey would not be the first port of call but fear is likely to create a range of performance issues, increase turnover and absenteeism and quash creativity, and knowing exactly where that fear might be coming from could be useful in determining what an organisation could do about it.

    In any event, we would thoroughly support the need to consider the questions you use in an engagement very carefully, to encourage people to provide honest responses, to ensure relevance and to ensure the process is non-threatening.  The questions in our default survey reflect the kinds of thing you would see in a 360 degree questionnaire; we don’t ask “Has your manager shouted at you recently?” or “Are you concerned that your manager is fiddling his or her expenses?”.  The questions that relate to managers are constructive; reflecting good management practice which clearly point towards behaviours that will help a team to feel a greater degree of engagement, not provoke a witch hunt.  The questions are not just focused on managers; some ask about the individual’s own behaviours and feelings, as well as looking at what the most senior leaders do and focusing on the broader organisation and culture.

    On the subject of cost, I would wholeheartedly agree that training can be expensive, and that the organisations we work with have a limited development budget that would quickly be eaten up if training were the answer to most engagement issues. I would say that training is rarely the answer, but it does tend to be a reflexive and easy one; to be engaged I need personal development and personal development equals a training course. But I would argue that often the best learning opportunities are not provided on training courses and that there are other more cost effective and time efficient ways of developing people. Our survey tool contains a wide array of suggestions, many of them which cost nothing more than a few minutes of people’s time, which provide a stimulus for employees to think about options other than training. In our experience, people can usually tell you how they feel about work, but find it more difficult to say what they could do in order to feel better about it. We’re saying that if you provide a bigger range of options, offer suggestions and ideas for people to try at little or no cost, and spread these efforts throughout the whole organisation rather than relying on the HR team or the training budget to drive up engagement levels, then we should see greater return on investment in employee surveys.

  2. Cost

    You forgot the big one – money.

    Every time a company runs one of these surveys they are hoping for someone to come up with the holy grail – something that heightens engagement, boosts productivity/sales/whatever, and doesn't cost anything to implement.

    I know some people will say that monetary reward isn't the only driver – they're not wrong, they're perhaps just on the wrong side of the fence.  Chances are they're already very well paid for what they do, such that they can enjoy a decent lifestyle without worrying in any significant degree about where the next electricity bill is coming from.

    There are other costs as well.  I worked in an area full of problem-solvers and techies.  The training courses they wanted were in-depth, complex, and expensive.  They were routinely knocked back, every time they asked to go on a course, until such time as they stopped asking.  Every survey that came round said 'What do you want' – the answer was always 'More training', and the answer was always 'No'.  After a while, they stopped even answering the surveys.  A more engaged and enthusiastic bunch would have been hard to find, but they knew the company was not prepared to invest in their development in any meaningful way.  They got offered books, and on one memorable occasion, a training course with a company so cheap that they went under during the last two days of the training course.  On the last day, the trainees had to work while men were removing the equipment from the building, with the understanding that as soon as they logged off their PCs at the end of the day, they'd be gone too!

    You want engaged employees, be prepared to pay for them.  Either as well-deserved wages for the ones you've got, money to hire new staff because you're so busy, or training courses to make the ones you've got better and more productive.  Everybody understands that we have to keep costs down, but cheaping out is the quickest way to blot out any last trace of engagement, enthusiasm or loyalty

  3. Fear

    A problem with these surveys is that staff will sometimes not tell the truth, fearing negative consequences of being seen to be critical of their employer.

    There are various flavours of a satirical cartoon around which starts with a manager saying to an employee something like "According to the anonymous staff survey, you don't trust the management." Think about it. And then think whether your employees might fear this type of consequence and tailor their responses accordingly.

    What use is an engagement survey when people give the response they think their employer wants, rather than the truth? At best it achieves little and at worst it gives the management of the organisation a completely false impression of what their employees actually think.

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Debbie Hance

Head of Business Psychology

Read more from Debbie Hance

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