Productivity & Effectiveness

The Problems with Employee Engagement Surveys

By 15/10/2020 No Comments

Employee Engagement surveys and initiatives are everywhere. It’s almost become a corporate mandate to have an Engagement initiative. In some companies, it’s become part of the annual corporate analysis and review. As HR comes under more pressure to show value, it’s almost becoming a norm for employee engagement scores to be sat alongside profit and loss.

In this post I’ll cast a critical eye over Employee Engagement, whilst sharing some ideas on why, as will come as no surprise to regular readers, that engagement belongs to management.

The premise behind employee engagement surveys is the idea that by asking a few simple questions, HR and management can assess whether their employee base is engaged in their careers and work. The assumption being that engaged people are more productive and this ultimately hits the bottom line. The more engaged a company’s workforce is, the more profit the company make. This is not true and very misleading, as we’ll cover in this post.

Now, this isn’t a slight on HR at all – I am a HR pro and work in this industry, but it is a shout out for HR, managers and leaders to apply some critical thinking to popular and trending ideas.

It’s easy to see why Engagement Surveys are so popular. Human Capital is the latest buzz trend, and it’s important – looking after our people is good for business and it’s a humane thing to do.

Employee Engagement is a multi million pound industry.

Employee engagement surveys are an easy reach, for the under-pressure HR leader looking for ways to measure and show progress in developing the “human capital”.

It’s a number that can be added to corporate performance decks. It’s a measure that sounds plausible. It’s something HR leaders can show that proves they are investing in people and making changes for the good of the people. Many surveys come packaged up and ready to deploy. They are good win. But are they?

Just like agile frameworks though, anything off-the-shelf is unlikely to solve your problems. But I understand why people reach for them.

After all, trying to get your managers to actually do their job is not easy.

But employee engagement, like agility, belongs to managers.

You may just have to do it

I’m not naive enough to think you can just push back and say “No” to engagement initiatives, you may not have that influence or strategic decision-making latitude. You may just have to engage in this activity – which is a shame, but I understand.

But check out the following reasons why Employee Engagement surveys aren’t working – and see if you can do your part to challenge the initiative, or alternatively try to make them work. After all, some companies are seeing success from them – but it’s likely they have very high performing management initiatives in the first place.

1 – What problem are you trying to solve?

Ah ha, we’re back to the first question every HR leader and manager should be asking – what problem are you trying to solve?

The reason this question is so powerful in this context, is because intention really does matter when we roll out initiatives. The reason we are doing something guides how we do it, what we look for (confirmation bias) and what we do with the outcome.

  • Are we rolling out Employee Engagement because we care about our people?
  • Are we doing it because we have identified a problem with engagement? If so, how? And how will a survey solve that?
  • Are we doing it to pretend we care?
  • Are we doing it because everyone else is?

Unless we understand what problem we are trying to solve – should we be spending large amounts of money running an engagement survey?

Or should we be working with people, listening to people, training managers, studying how work flows and ensuring we have a clear direction of travel?

After all, all companies need a clear direction of travel, once we have that we will be able to study the problems in our path – and if we can clearly define problems, we can clearly attract talented people to come and solve them. And this leads to better results and more meaningful work.

The reasons behind rolling out a survey are important – they will influence and guide what you do with the data. Be sure it’s a step towards solving the right problems.

2 – No agreed industry standard of measure

Employee Engagement surveys and tooling are everywhere.

But which one do you pick? Ideally the one that helps you solve your problems. (Hint, none of them will help solve delivery and growth problems – people do that).

And so, you go to the marketplace and you buy the one that fits your budget, sounds impressive or has decent copy on their website.

The thing is, they all use different questions. They analyse these questions in different ways. They give you different results. Some are more insightful than others. Some give you nice data packs and graphs. Some have their own portal; some integrate with popular CRM and HR tooling.

All use a different way of measuring.

And that’s a headache inducing problem.

How useful is it to run a survey that can’t be used for any benchmarking, comparison or even acknowledged as a standard corporate measure? Not very.

If employee engagement is to become a measure that sits in the annual company performance plans and reports – it needs to be universally accepted as a standard across industries – like profit, loss, revenue, capital etc.

It may prove insightful for your company, but what are other companies doing?

This is why the popular reporting of employee engagement percentages are misleading. There is no universal standard.

So, when we read that the UK is just 45% engaged in work – what does that actually mean?

Has somebody crunched EVERY single tool and survey result? Or have they just picked this data from the main players?

How has that result been compared to the agreed standard, or agreed measure, or any sort of benchmarking – oh wait, it hasn’t.

And this is why it’s incredibly misleading to report that companies with high engagement report higher earnings and profit – according to what standard? Which tool? Which survey?

It’s marketing, click bait and sales.

Are there companies making plenty of profit who don’t use surveys? Yep.

Are there companies with very high engagement who aren’t doing so well? Yep. (we’ll cover this in a minute).

It makes very little sense to read about engagement levels and worry about our own, when there is no uniform, agreed upon, industry standard.

3 – It’s a lagging measure

I’m not a fan of lagging measures. They only tell you what has happened – not what is happening.

Employee Engagement surveys are typically annual, with maybe some top-up “pulse” surveys in between.

They are too little too late. Engagement ebbs and flows. You’ll see this in your own lives. Some week’s we are on fire and love the work we do. Some weeks we want to give up.

This is the same in our work lives. We aren’t robots, we are human. This is precisely why the “Pulse” survey became so popular – because the annual survey was just too late.

And this is precisely why engagement belongs to management. Managers should be working with their people often. Weekly 1:2:1s, monthly coaching and performance planning, observing people in action, giving feedback and unblocking systemic issues daily – so that people can actually get their work done.

Management is an active real-time activity. Engagement surveys are lagging.

How useful is it to know how engaged people were when you ran the survey? What if things have changed? You can’t keep checking the pulse of everyone, every day through a survey. But managers – talking with their people can. Every. Single. Day.

Engagement is not something we can bucket up in chunks. It happens during every single day, every interaction, every project, every angry customer, every time managers and leaders interact.

The solution is not to run a survey every week. The solution is simple – get managers working with their people – everyday. If they’re not solving systemic problems, working with people, getting to know their team and unblocking the path, what are they doing? Oh yes – getting ready for the next pulse survey.

4 – What about business results

I worked in a company where Employee Engagement results (and it’s evil twin – Employee Net Promoter Score (ENPS)) was put above everything else. Literally any initiative or plan that could negatively affect those two results was not viable. Yep – even the very strategy that was needed to save the business!

Business results matter. Our output, the value to the customer, delivery of work, making a profit so we can keep doing this good work. This all matters immensely – but most Employee Engagement surveys don’t include anything about this.

This is why I like the X-model from Blessing and White. They have the concept of Honeymooners – people who are engaged but not adding much business value.

In this company where engagement was the holy measure, they had very high engagement rates. People were very engaged.

The problem was half of these people added very little value to the business, the other half were holding the fort down. The hero culture was strong – and these heroes were paid very handsomely. They were paid around 40% ABOVE market rates for similar roles.

Half of the engaged people offered little value, the other half did everything they could to not rock the boat – after all, how could you earn those salaries elsewhere?

It was made worse by HR initiatives to boost response rates and keep the number high.

They went through a period of incentivising the surveys. If teams scored highly on the survey results – they would get a bonus. Bet you can’t guess what happened next? Nearly an 100% engagement high! What a surprise.

But work wasn’t getting done. Business was suffering. Results were tanking. Margin was slipping away. Costs were spiralling.

They had lots of Honeymooners. And they thought everything was going so well, until they started to run out of money.

Business results matter. If you are rolling out engagement surveys, or in the mix of using them, be sure to find some way to link them to business performance. There is little point in having engaged teams who don’t deliver the value needed to keep the business alive.

5 – They are time consuming

Engagement initiatives are very time consuming. There is a huge amount of effort from the HR teams putting it all together, testing it, learning how to interpret results, rolling it out, training managers and leaders, collecting the results, understanding the results, sharing the results, working with managers to improve the results and dealing with the inevitable push back from underperforming managers.

Then you have the managers who have to spend time learning about the process, rolling it out, talking to their team, fielding question after question about anonymity and what the execs will do with the results yada yada. Then you have the meetings, the results, the check-ins, the pulse surveys. And more.

And then you have the staff who spend time filling them in, reading the results, gossiping about the outcomes, making up rumours about how the execs will use the data, speculating on whether they will get to see the true results, or a sanitised version of them.

All of this takes time. And it takes people away from doing what they should be doing.

If it’s worth it – it’s worth it.

But to measure whether these surveys are worth that investment, you need to know what problem you’re trying to solve in the first place.

And if you can’t measure the problem, and whether or not it’s getting solved – you’ll have a hard time justifying the epic number of hours spent on engagement surveys. That is of course, unless you’re just doing them because everyone else is – and it’s merely the cost of doing modern business. 🙂

6 – They are easily gamed

As mentioned before, one company incentivised the high score results from the survey. People gamed it and got a bonus. The HR team surely knew people would do this. So, what’s the point of the survey? To give insights to engagement? Or to show progress?

Another company, before rolling out the initial survey, sent every employee a nice bottle of bubbly and a hamper to their home. The managers were super nice for a week before (which was freaking everyone out). They gave everyone a 2% pay rise for no apparent reason. When the survey came out, people were feeling good about themselves and their work. They scored highly – and then everything went back to how it was. Time for some more bubbly to be delivered.

When I was a VP in HR and engagement was in my basket of concern, I would see managers incentivising their people to give good feedback. Some managers would use their winning charm and their own personal money to woo people to respond favourably. Other managers simply threatened their staff with rubbish work and no overtime.

It was about this time that I saw why surveys don’t work – people game them depending on what is at stake, or how they recently feel about the company. The real engagement comes from building relationships with people and working with them. HR cannot scale this – which is why management are the key to high engagement.

7 – They point to Leadership and Management failures

A lot of the questions in common engagement surveys are based around management support, executive direction, having the right environment, using strengths etc. These all point to managers and leaders – and in essence, whether they are doing parts of their jobs correctly.

It’s notoriously hard to get managers to do their jobs correctly, especially so if their manager is an exec, who also has room for improvement.

It can be tempting then, for the HR leader or exec to reach to a tool like engagement surveys to point out what they already know. To shine a light on poor management to engender support for improvement – and if a survey helps you do this – do it. A kind of bargaining tool to use with managers. A measure to bring alive what everyone already knows. And this can be helpful.

But the reality is that past behaviour predicts future behaviour.

Will these managers change because a report says they aren’t supporting people enough, or people feel their managers don’t care about them? Or leadership aren’t providing direction? Maybe.

It takes a well-rounded, self-reflecting manager or leader to take information from a survey and then change their own behaviours. And these sorts of managers and leaders likely don’t need surveys – they are self-aware enough to seek direct feedback, understand where they need to improve and seek the counsel of a trusted advisor. They are also observing and working closely with their teams.

As for the those who don’t want to change. They’re unlikely to change, no matter what the survey says. You see, the very problems highlighted above play to the manager or leader who doesn’t want to change.

  • “It’s anonymous so people are always going to vent” (This is true by the way – see point later)
  • “People are never honest in surveys”
  • “I’ve changed that since then” (Lagging measure)
  • “I will fix it” (But they don’t)
  • “These surveys take too much time – the other managers simply aren’t busy enough”
  • “These surveys take too much time – it’s only the slackers who have time to fill it in”

And on and on. Excuse after excuse with no change in behaviour.

Instead of spending millions on engagement surveys – why aren’t companies spending that on addressing leadership and management behaviours? On training, on learning how to have tricky conversations, on developing strong processes and routines, on learning how to study systemic problems, on succession planning?

Although I have no data – I imagine those companies that do come out as highly engaged – and have a correlation to profit – simply have good management structures in place with good behaviours. The survey is telling them what they already know – that management and leaders are doing their jobs properly.

Engagement starts with managers listening and working with their people, understanding the work and how to add value – and then fixing systemic issue after systemic issue, to help work flow.

8 – Anonymous surveys can become negative

Employee engagement surveys tend to be anonymous – after all, we want people to share their true feelings with us. The challenge with this though, is two-fold.

Many people are sceptical that they are entirely anonymous – so a percentage of people will hold off completing it honestly, for fear of any comeback.

The anonymity also tends to bring out the frustrations and negativity. It’s therefore not uncommon to have rants, venting and frustrations coming through. Some of this information could be helpful, but it needs balancing with what’s going well – and often this positive side doesn’t come through at all. Certainly, in my experience, engagement surveys can be very negative affairs indeed.

We want to learn the truth about our organisations, but we also want to get a balanced view – and in my experience, the results are often far from balanced. They can bring out the worst side of people.

In one company they were analysing the results and became incredibly upset by the sheer ranting that was taking place. They ultimately decided to abandon the survey as it didn’t bring much value.

9 – Surveys are not action

The act of running a survey is not action towards making changes in the workplace. It is a form of listening – and listening is important. The real action needs to come after the survey.

There is deep scepticism in management and leadership. Listening through a survey is a good start to address this scepticism – but without taking action on the outcomes, it can only make things worse.

It all comes down to why managers are running the survey and the intention behind it. If it’s to make the business better, then action needs to be taken based on what insights come back.

A lack of action undermines the process and the effort HR, managers and employees put into the survey.

10 – They boil people down to a number

The world of work is a complicated and complex series of human behaviours and interactions. It’s therefore, somewhat meaningless, to boil all of this down to a number.

When we read that 45% of the workplace are disengaged – what does this mean? Who did the research? How did they do it? What did they do it? How can we take meaningful action from this?

It makes for good click bait and marketing material – but does it translate to change?

It’s the same reason many employees dislike the standard performance appraisal process; people are boiled down to numbers. These complex human beings, and their performance in a system that is often outside of their control, is whittled down to a statistic.

The real details are behind the numbers, and they are nuanced, biased and influenced by external sources to the people they are measuring.

The best way to understand whether people are engaged, and adding value, and growing and learning – is for managers to get to know their people well. To work out what their strengths and weaknesses are. To find challenging and meaningful work for people to take on. To enable cooperation in the workplace. And to help remove the systemic issues that affect people’s engagement and performance.

As you may have guessed – employee engagement belongs to managers.

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