Employee Engagement Survey Results: Fact or Fiction?

Employee Engagement surveys are barely worth the time and effort taken to produce them.

They certainly have questionable content and value for those organisations who rely on survey results for a genuine view of how employees feel.

Big statements, perhaps! But only if you have not taken the time to meaningfully investigate the reasons why employees might feel the need to provide over-inflated scoring that does not reflect reality.

Engagement continues to be a major factor in business success and focus for management.

We know this topic is big. Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends research (shows) 78% of business leaders rate retention and engagement urgent or important. HR leaders talk consistently about retention issues…and businesses all over the world are trying to build an inclusive, passionate, multi-generational team.

In fact…the issue of ‘engaging people well’ is becoming one of the biggest competitive differentiators in business.

The change we need to make is to redefine engagement beyond an ‘annual HR measure’ to a continuous, holistic part of an entire business strategy. If your people love their work and the environment you have created, they will treat customers better, innovate, and continuously improve your business.

Creating a high performance work environment is a complex problem. We have to communicate a mission and values, train managers and leaders to live these values, and then carefully select the right people who fit. And once people join, we have to continuously improve, redesign, and tweak the work environment to make it modern, humane, and enjoyable. (1)

There are many reasons why employee engagement surveys have limited value.

Not because the concept is flawed. It is more about respondent buy-in, bias and application of the process that creates the greatest anomalies. Three potential flawed assumptions that commonly interfere with understanding what engagement is and what it does for the organisation are:

  1. All employee responses are equally credible.
  2. Perfecting employee circumstances will drive engagement.
  3. Engagement alone drives results. (3)

Extending this thinking, additional elements that challenge the value of engagement surveys include:

  • Establishing KPI’s that are aligned to the engagement scores is a major failure point. Employees and particularly managers, who have a vested interest in obtaining a higher score may skew their answers. Particularly if the engagement results have a direct impact on their bonus, annual reviews or similar. If you doubt this point, it may reflect relationships and trust that exists with your employees and their willingness to be truly honest. Hard to hear. Maybe, but the most effective leaders don’t let ego, fear or self-delusion stop them doing what is right or true. In my role as coach, consultant and leader I have had many conversations with employees who deliberately inflate or affect scores based on self-interest.

Why would a manager be critical of their team or business unit when the onus and responsibility to ‘fix’ any real or perceived issues will fall back on them?

  • During my coaching engagements it has become clear that the links between culture, trust and transparency positively or negatively impact engagement survey results. Organisations that communicate well; recruit and develop leaders who support both the business and employees; are transparent and giving by nature; and genuinely support employees as people, often see this positive action reflected in results. Of course, the opposite is just as true.
  • The time invested in responding, compiling and supplying surveys is rarely worth the effort. Particularly when little is done to maximise the results through action and improvement. Essentially, for many organisations the return on investment is low. Too often the process is a ‘tick-the-box’ exercise. By pursuing employee engagement surveys, an organisation is establishing an expectation that they care and are looking for information to improve the performance and inputs of the business. Cynicism and apathy are the result when nothing is communicated or applied post survey.

In some ways an organisation is better to not create this expectation in the first place, than to ask for feedback and then do nothing with the data collected.

  • The perception of anonymity remains a concern for many. No matter how many times or ways the message of anonymity is stated, many employees doubt that the data truly remains hidden. To this day I speak with managers who spend time sifting through the comments trying to decipher which respondent made a certain statement. Clearly the point of engagement and leadership is being missed by these people. Unfortunately, the reasons a manager behaves in this way within the survey process generally reflects how they lead teams. In my experience poor leadership behaviours such as these are not isolated to engagement surveys. A manager who behaves in this way will generally be displaying poor behaviours elsewhere. This should be reflected in the survey (kind of the point), but is often not highlighted for the reasons listed. Ironic isn’t it! Additionally, anonymous input protects privacy but for this reason also means that specific targets for development cannot be identified.

The ability to translate how an employee feels into a series of prescribed questions is a challenge for some respondents.

  • Along with a lack of genuine clarity of what employee engagement actually is, there is plenty of grey area. A recent article expands on this point. If something can’t be clearly defined, then it can’t be accurately measured. Because of these contradictory definitions (and measures), it is hard to accurately compare the results from external statistical comparison studies. The results of high engagement are ‘stronger emotional feelings’ and ‘increased effort’. Although these two factors may be important, other factors like a bad manager, the wrong skills, and improper training may neutralize any benefit from engagement. Some engagement surveys include multiple factors (i.e. satisfaction, performance, sentiment, trust, morale, happiness, burnout, commitment) but many of these may be overlapping or duplications of the same factor. (2)
  • Engagement is not productivity or an output— using an analogy, engagement may be smoke but it is not fire. The primary concern of business leaders is increasing productivity, output, or innovation. Unfortunately, employee engagement, employee satisfaction, emotional intelligence, etc. may contribute to productivity, but they are not productivity. An employee may be fully engaged and emotionally tied to the firm but without the proper training, leaders, resources, etc. no amount of commitment will improve their outputs. Emotional states are hard to understand and measure, while behaviours and productivity are not. A superior approach is one that looks broadly at all of the factors that increase productivity, that lower labour costs, and that increase the value of labour outputs and innovation. (2)

Remember: People Are The Product

CoachStation: Employee Engagement

Part of this shift is redefining our perspective on an employee. Rather than consider people as “hired hands” we want to “engage,” (the whole term “human resources” has this old fashioned connotation) high-engagement companies understand that employees are the essence of products and services. They develop, deliver, and support what our customers experience every day. (1)

Are employee engagement surveys becoming obsolete? Possibly. However, the principal behind increasing understanding of what contributes to engagement and ultimately improved performance and results remains an important point. It is far from simple, though. In fact, engagement surveys may be drawing too long a bow between engagement, performance and outcomes. As detailed earlier, there are many reasons (including several not listed) that provide reasonable doubt as to the value of employee surveys. What is clear, however, is the need for transparent leadership and genuine effort in understanding team members and the link to business needs.

Organisations that fail to focus on the inputs that contribute to results and instead focus solely on the results; KPI’s and outcomes will always feel challenged.  Maybe I am wrong, but the evidence continues to speak for itself. CoachStation is regularly engaged for development opportunities such as these.

Whether your leaders are prepared for an honest self-assessment and reflection of reality is the real question.

Will a survey identify or prevent these issues? Probably not. But, as a leader, appropriate and relevant actions remain your call and responsibility.

Effective leaders understand that this is not negotiable.

Whether you take the challenge is up to you.

 

Sources:

(1) It’s Time To Rethink this Employee Engagement Issue: Josh Bersin

(2) The Top 20 Potential Problems with Employee Engagement: Arvind Verma

(3) Employee Engagement – Avoid These 3 Fatal Flaws: Justin Scace

 

 

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