Employee Engagement Surveys … Why Bother?

Employee Engagement SurveyApparently, organizations are losing their often stated, but rarely demonstrated, most valuable asset – their people. You can’t open your news feed without seeing an article on The Great Resign. The media has latched onto the idea that workers are leaving their jobs in droves — which is great news for employee engagement survey companies.

The problem is bigger than it appears because we use the most obvious metric, people quitting their jobs. What about everyone who disengages without leaving, treading water for a paycheck and, at least in the US, health insurance?

The good and bad news is, for individuals who decide to leave their unfulfilling situation, there are plenty of other jobs to slot into that probably aren’t much better.

If we hold that better engagement leads to greater job satisfaction and higher retention rates – trust me, this equation is proven – then we can imagine there must be tactical solutions. No; more pay is not one of them. The fixes require a fundamentally different take on how people work together inside the organization. The effects of greater engagement and employee enthusiasm are fairly easy to understand – we can all relate. But, challenging the status quo of traditional organizations that think in terms of bosses and subordinates is hard. In other words, what needs to actually be done isn’t such an easy change.

Companies that understand the basis for the problem are better suited to develop effective solutions. They will be the ultimate winners in the current and ongoing musical-chairs-employment-job-fair extravaganza.

Unfortunately for employees in less enlightened organizations, engagement surveys are often the beginning, middle and end of failed endeavors. Mostly, because they’re easy. Here’s some advice that could save a lot of time and energy and actually avoid additional discontent related to typical surveys: Don’t do them at all. Even without a survey, we know that better engagement delivers results. It’s like communication. You always need to do more than you are.

So, forget the survey and just focus on better engagement. That said, if you decide to do one, share the results. It’s a pretty big disconnect when people are told their input is valued and then hear nothing about their valuable input. Better yet, have a tactical plan for how to address areas of concern – something beyond an employee newsletter, one-on-one feedback sessions and the one-off town hall meeting.

Let’s look at a few of the more obvious problems with the surveys:

  • Fear of retribution – Employees often avoid these types of inquiries or give elevated ratings. A lot of people believe they are tracked (unthinkable I know) and that their honest inputs or critical feedback will only make their situation worse. “No way am I doing that survey – I don’t believe that it isn’t linked to me. If I’m forced, I’ll just say it’s all good.”

Here is an idea for a simple employee engagement survey that would tell you everything you need to know. Ask just one question: Are you be interested in taking an employee engagement survey? Have everyone put their answer on a piece of paper, fold it in half and drop it into a sealed box. If the trend is no, well, then… engagement is poor.

  • Cognitive Dissonance – No one likes to admit, especially to themselves, that they are not really valued and their opinion doesn’t matter. So, when asked for their input, people tend to be a little optimistic. When we experience one thing, but need to believe something else – especially for our own self-image – we feel the discomfort and anxiety of cognitive dissonance. For most, it’s easier to modify one’s beliefs than to change their work environment. In other words, if I’m forced to fill out a survey, things look pretty good.
  • Hopelessness “I’m not doing a stupid survey. I’ve given my input for years. They know what I think and nothing ever changes.”

Translation: I’m not engaged enough to tell anyone I’m not engaged enough.

  • Management doesn’t know what to do with the results. Even if engagement surveys are perfect, ask all the right questions, and everyone completes them as accurately as possible, many managers don’t understand how to use the information. “We received the feedback, but it’s only the disgruntled employees who responded.” This may be somewhat true because the most irritated of the lot are already over the edge and don’t care much about retribution. Yet this comment misses the point in some obvious ways. It also shows that cognitive dissonance happens at all levels.

“Our ratings were low, but we were able to identify some individuals who are really upset. I spoke with them, heard their view and now things are better.” No, they’re not.

“We had a nice team-building event sponsored by the VP. The food was very good and everyone had fun. Our engagement scores were no better the next year.”

Some Things Change Quite Slowly

A recent article from McKinsey (link below) covers this topic well. It discusses what employees want from their workplace and how employees and management perceptions diverge. It’s a good article because it reminds us of something we’ve known for decades.

Every analysis of this type for the past 50 years has told us the exact same thing. Employees want to have a voice in the work they do. They want their opinion to matter. They want to participate in meaningful work and they want some recognition for their efforts. It’s really this simple.

To do this however, means that bosses and managers must give up some control. In many organizations, this is a foreign concept. It requires a deeper sense of trust, a common focus, greater understanding of work flow, distributed decision making, clarified roles and accountabilities, effective feedback mechanisms, and most of all the willingness to change. To be clear, it’s not just about managers giving up control. It’s also about subordinates accepting more. We have found that both sides of the equation resist vigorously.

These days, hard things are avoided and fundamental change is impossible for many. Without a significant emotional event, this slow drip (or flood) of employee attrition will be viewed as inevitable – just something we all need to get through. By paying attention now and using the current environment as a necessary catalyst for change, the best will rise to the top and take concrete measures to truly engage their people in a way that really does deliver employee enthusiasm for the place they work.


All quotes in this article are real quotes from individuals we have spoken with first-hand recently about their current work experiences.

Links for additional information

‘Great Attrition’ or ‘Great Attraction’? The Choice is Yours

Results Improve When Managers Give Up Some Control


Employee Engagement Definition


The Lean Daily Management System