Rob Rave: Annual staff surveys don’t engage employees

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Most companies carry out an annual staff survey to gauge the opinions of their employees and, if the purpose of the survey is to gather critical data about the organisation, this can work well. However when it comes to employee engagement, which many companies treat as a ‘bolt-on’ to a staff survey, it serves only to be counter-productive because employed engagement is not something which can be measured quantitatively. General staff surveys have typically been designed around autocratic organisations that once a year task their staff to complete a compulsory poll on how the organisation and its leaders are doing from the employee’s standpoint. But a survey of what people ‘think’ is at odds with the concept of fostering a culture of ownership and responsibility as would be expected in an organisation with engaged employees.

Employee engagement is about how people ‘feel’, not what they ‘think’ about something extrinsic to themselves, such as their organisation, its processes or its leaders. Issues such as these should only be discussed and dealt with once the right environment and skills are in place in order for any meaningful, applicable results to come out of them.

As inroads to employee engagement need to happen in real-time, annual surveys which take months, weeks at best to extrapolate data from and then apply to the workplace, are immediately obsolete. Counter-productivity results because the organisation creates the false expectation that the survey will improve things for employees overnight. Nine times out of ten, disengagement occurs because of a breakdown in human relationships and communication or a feeling of exclusion and 75% of people resign from their jobs because of relationship issues not because of any dissatisfaction with the company (in other words they leave their manager), what Shay McConnon terms ‘unmet’ needs and unskilled, dysfunctional conversations in his book Managing Conflict in the Workplace.

Business leaders and managers must foster an environment in which employees feel able to behave openly and provide as well as receive proactive feedback, where any conflict and differences are managed and where they can take ownership and feel valued. If this is achieved, clients and customers will ‘feel’ great dealing with the organisation because it will be evident that its employees are engaged and self-motivated. And, whilst research continues to demonstrate that engaging staff has a profound, positive effect on productivity and other business outcomes, annual staff surveys remain an essential facet of the HR toolbox. They are not the correct forum through which to facilitate employee engagement and today’s workplace no longer functions effectively, something I discuss in my post Inspirational versus Systematic Leadership: which best fosters Employee Engagement?. In the words of Shay McConnon, “leadership is too important to leave in the hands of the leaders alone”.

Whilst most organisations understand and appreciate that they have a vested interest in employee engagement, there is no magic formula on how to improve it. Nevertheless a good starting point is to create an employee engagement survey to identify the ‘pinch points’ of the employees in your organisation. And from the results, create an action plan to increase employee engagement, which could be leadership development, coaching or management training, for example.

The results of various employee engagement surveys of recent years have revealed the levels of disengaged and disgruntled employees in the workplace, a situation not helped by the financial crisis and pursuant redundancies and staff who have kept their jobs either being asked to do more for less, being demoted or having to reapply for their own jobs. Common themes in survey results have been:

  • Lack of meaningful training for employees to grow their career
  • Lack of respect for employers as a result of feeling ‘micro-managed’ and therefore mistrusted to make decisions
  • Lack of understanding of company goals and therefore an inability to align actions to help meet these goals

Having said that, many organisations find that just creating the survey will produce low-hanging fruit because engagement increases when employees see that leadership is asking for their feedback.

Ahlstrand previously worked at Gallup when the organisation was conducting research on employee engagement for the book First Break All the Rules: What The World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently. The principles set out by Gallup in the book stressed the importance of quantifying and measuring engagement outcomes and it spent no less than 93 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

Many employee engagement surveys pose the same questions to everybody in the organisation and the data takes months to analyse. Far better to:

  • Leverage technology which produces real-time results, i.e. analysis and dissemination of survey data as soon as possible after it is received. Not doing so only further disengages employees who have been asked to provide their opinions but have you wait months for a response
  • Devise different questions for different types of groups in order that managers can focus on the specific issues affecting different types of people within the organisation. For example, how under-25s working in the sales department are feeling
  • Redo the survey after six to 12 months so that you can analyse whether your action plan has been successful in increasing employee engagement.

Employ these tactics/approaches and your organisation’s employee engagement surveys have a chance of succeeding!

Rob Rave specialises in designing and delivering engagement, alignment and performance initiatives that deliver fast results. A recent engagement program for a FTSE 100 company resulted in its five-year engagement target being achieved in one year and was described as “a revolutionary way of approaching how we engage our colleagues to drive enhanced business performance”. www.progresstalk.co.uk 


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  1. Thanks for your article – you make a number of good points.

    The quality of any survey (i.e. the way it’s designed and run) is a huge contributing factor to whether it is a valuable exercise. You’re right that the survey itself won’t lead to increased engagement – that’s not what it’s for.

    I don’t agree though that engagement cannot be measured quantitatively. If an employee survey is designed to measure the things that matter – both for the business and for employees – then it can give an accurate measure of engagement across a company. Perhaps even more importantly, it can also guide a company to act on results that’ll help improve employee engagement.

    Any company running a survey where engagement or taking action is just an after-thought (or is not even considered) will get no value from the process. In fact, it could even have a negative impact on engagement as employees will feel disempowered and that they don’t have a voice.

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