4 Reasons Why I Knew The Results of Your Engagement Survey Before You Even Started

“Human beings are different; predictably different.”  Not my words but when I heard them a few years ago, they resonated with me. Immediately I recognized that, while not discounting our individuality, the statement acknowledges the fact that our behaviours and responses to situations exist within certain parameters. It’s the same predictability that makes jury selection a science and witness preparation a job specialization. That predictability forms the fundamental principle upon which good marketers pay close attention to the response of the 13-15% of ‘early adopters’ of their product or service in order to get a greater sense of potential market acceptance and penetration.  

Yet, despite this predictability, organisations are struggling to come to grips with the troubling trend of low employee engagement scores which has been consistently seen over the last 15 years[1]. It’s that predictability that I realized organisations were not sufficiently leveraging in our employee engagement survey process from being realistic about the outcomes through to survey design and finally intervention development and implementation.    

It seems the only thing predictable about these surveys are the results. Actually, engagement survey results are beginning to resemble your monthly supermarket list:

  • poor leadership – check

  • low trust – check

  • dissatisfaction with compensation – check

  • poor communication – check

Our failure as leaders to effect change is not from a lack of trying. Oftentimes, the response to the survey results feels like an episode of Hell’s Kitchen as we assemble the largest team possible to review the results and craft the action plan. From there, the shopping list is a long one – a very, very long one – of action items distributed among the leadership team to work on.  Instead, this creates another problem. Because so many tasks are involved and managers have ‘real’ work to do, we seldom get much done. The result: low efficacy and, more importantly, further reduced trust because we’ve once again failed to deliver on something that we’ve promised. 

I think we all agree that engagement is non-negotiable. We need our people to have it if we want to be truly competitive in the marketplace. It’s regarded as the key factor that contributes to discretionary effort. It’s what elevates a routine customer experience to something that wows a customer and earns your company a cheerleader or what evolves the R & D team from simply replicating a competitor’s product to developing one that your competitors struggle to copy. Don’t get me wrong, disengaged or neutral employees produce work too, it’s just at a greater cost.  

So why is it that we can’t get engagement right? If engagement is really about putting mechanisms in place to yield a desirable albeit predictable response, where are we consistently going wrong? If we can sell expensive mobile devices to consumers who already have fully-functional, expensive mobile devices, why is it difficult to keep persons engaged in jobs that they applied to do, were trained to do and are being paid to do? Remember, employees are consumers of the ideas and visions of leaders. So, naturally, it would suggest that we need to invest similarly when it comes to deliberate thought, time, strategy and, where necessary, finance when marketing the organisation’s direction and purpose to an audience of internal consumers.  

Admittedly, engagement is a complex topic but in the following points I wanted to share four (4) of the critical factors which, if not addressed can undermine the most well intended organisation’s ability to transform survey findings to actionable initiatives that generate significant return on their investment and actually moves the needle on employee engagement.  Have a look and see which might apply to your own experience.

We don’t know our employees.  It’s funny because we are told that you should know the names of your employees, the names of their spouses, kids and their favorite ice-cream flavors. Yet, we really don’t know them or, more correctly, understand them and their needs. Product design for years has been driven by User Experience (UX). Similarly, the understanding that improving customer service is largely a function of improving the Customer Experience (CX), which means paying rapt attention to understanding who your customers are has been gaining considerable traction especially in the last few years.

However, still trailing by some distance are conversations around employee experience (EX). That’s why the waiting area of a service company which requires more time to process transactions will be considerably different than one which focuses on very quick transactions. So while we have taken the time to know our employees’ names, do we really understand what they need and in so doing take the time and effort to craft an experience that makes them want to be a part of the organisation and buy into its vision? While we gather data from the engagement survey, without the context to understand employee needs we will almost always be unable to properly assimilate and apply the insights. 

We ask the wrong questions.  Vanessa Redgrave, British Actress and activist said it best, “Ask the right questions if you’re going to find the right answers”. Naturally, we focus heavily on the answer; the pathway to the insight that hopefully allows us to effect transformational change. Where we spend less time – arguably, the most important time – is in question design. Thomas Berger, the American novelist argued that asking questions was both art and a science; a truth that is often underestimated.

Take for example the popular survey question, “Do you feel valued by the organisation?’. Intuitively, it makes sense. However, where do you go from here? What actions do you take? Unfortunately, many times the people who develop the solutions are so far removed from the reality of the rater that the solutions yield little impact. In contrast if we add this question as a qualifier  ‘In what ways has your manager showed you that you are a valued member of the team?’, we begin to glean some richer, more actionable and specific data? Even though it may require a bit more coding and analysis, I think you’d agree ultimately it’s worth it.   

We ignore the small things. While I was still a student I recall reading about change management, specifically within the sociopolitical context. It mentioned that, from the author’s research, there was a preference by public officials to try and build something big and ‘shiny’ during their term in office. Popular were hospitals, highways and other highly visible artifacts; the kinds of things that made it easy to reflect and say ‘Look, this was done’. Honestly, people appreciate hospitals and love highways. However, if the road from their home that they must traverse daily is in a state of disrepair, or their kids can’t safely play in the district because of gun violence, the journey on the highway potentially to the hospital will evoke a very negative emotional response. My point here is that we often overlook core elements of the employee experience.

As mentioned before, because we don’t fully understand the diversity of our stakeholders, our roll-out of direct debit for salary lodgments means that the individual who struggles with his ATM card must struggle every week to receive his hard earned pay. Until we take the time to view the employee’s experience for what it is – an individual experience – we’ll continue to miss the mark on deriving the greatest value from these opportune moments to hear the voices of our employees.  

We ignore the impact of the tribe. From the beginning of mankind, tribes existed. Seth Godin posited that once a group of people had a shared means of communication, had a leader and shared an idea, they qualified as a tribe[2]. Now, one of the benefits of tribalism is protection; initially physically, but potentially psychologically as well. Based on his definition, it follows that an organisation is a tribe … well, sort of; particularly if we assume that the CEO is the leader Seth was speaking about. Too many times, change initiatives are borne out of the engagement survey findings. The leader says we are going this way, only for persons to drag their feet and the idea to die a natural death like 70% of change initiatives[3].

The reason is simple: we assume that the leaders of the tribe sit at the top of the organizational structure. However, most often, smaller tribes exist within the lower rungs of the organisation and until we intentionally spend time identifying who they are, where they are and cracking the codes of those smaller tribes, those change efforts will yield little more than frustration. Can those tribal leaders be identified? Yes. Can they be engaged in a manner that is not malicious or vindictive? Definitely. However, as leaders we have to be intentional in appreciating the culture of the organization, the real culture, not the one on the wall, but the one that has the potential to undermine the best strategy and erode the most well-intended engagement initiatives.  

Engagement surveys are a two-headed sword. When designed correctly and tactfully implemented, they present a fantastic opportunity for organizational listening. Critical information can be fed upwards, giving leaders an opportunity to shape the environment into one where persons wish to be active contributors. However, when used recklessly, as a ‘check off’ on a to-do list or inherently flawed in design, the inability to glean useful insights precludes incisive action, minimized impact and instills a loss of confidence in one of the key stakeholders – employees. Engagement studies need not be complex but, at the same time, there is sufficient evidence to state that if we are not more careful in how we approach them we will continue to conduct disengagement studies that push leaders and employees further apart. 


[1]https://news.gallup.com/poll/241649/employee-engagement-rise.aspx

[2]https://www.productiveandfree.com/blog/tribes-by-seth-godin

[3]https://hbr.org/2000/05/cracking-the-code-of-change#:~:text=The%20brutal%20fact%20is%20that,an%20alphabet%20soup%20of%20initiatives.

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