An employee engagement survey can be one of the more demoralizing corporate initiatives that an employee experiences. If response rates are declining every year, if cafeteria conversations are different in tone and substance to survey comments, if the people who implement the survey are expressing a sense of dread, it could be that your engagement survey is causing more problems than it's solving.

Patrick Lencioni writes about The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Here are the three most common dysfunctions of an engagement survey:

  • After you push employees to meet last year's participation rate, you finally get the results and...nothing happens
  • For many people in their jobs, their biggest problem is that they're overwhelmed with work. If you're not careful, engagement surveys create additional work that don't appear to do much
  • The more disengaged an employee becomes, the less likely they are to complete the survey at all. If they do, the less likely they are to tell employers what they really think

Make Sure Something Happens

Organizations can debate for months about which results to share with employees, managers and so forth. Some never get so far as even to thank employees for their participation. Propose and get approval for the specific action that the organization will take before you ever administer the survey. Select 1 to 2 benchmark corporate questions and get executive alignment to take specific action depending on where the result falls. Now you have preapproval on a corporate effort based on initial survey results that you can use early to communicate action and demonstrate responsiveness.

Be Cautious of Creating More WorK

An employee engagement survey can generate lots of activity: committees, initiatives, meetings and projects. Now imagine that your past few surveys have all created work for employees that never came to fruition and was never promoted or celebrated. Eventually these employees will start to associate engagement surveys with additional and pointless work.

Pay attention to the cafeteria and break room conversations. Pick up the phone and get insights from tapped-in managers and directors on how prior surveys are perceived. In addition to these qualitative responses, note when it's much harder to get to last year's survey completion rate. After the fact, look for anomalies like huge score increases or decreases. Corroborate these inputs by talking with HR business partners, site leadership, HR call centers and front-line managers as you are able.

Be Mindful of Disengaged Employees

It can take courage to give honest feedback even in the best of environments and an engagement survey often introduces risk and the threat of change. Employees who are stressed and disengaged are unlikely to come forward and declare, "I've stopped caring much about my work because I think what I do doesn't matter or isn't appreciated," or, "I don't like our leadership," or "I think the organization's new strategic direction is just like the last, and that one didn't work either."

Employees who feel like this and who are additionally pressured to complete a survey to meet an arbitrary participation metric may say untrue or less true things. They may answer every question with a noncommittal "agree" or focus on generic complaints that fail to address root causes.

On the flip side, we see similar tactics from leaders who don't want to change and may be vested in avoiding negative survey results. They say things like, "I need to see my specific results before we can do anything," or "How do you validate these responses?"

Make the Most of the Opportunity

The messaging of an engagement survey is important, especially if prior surveys have been ignored by leadership or perceived as ineffective by employees. Focusing on an arbitrary participation number is also problematic. It tends to warp the quality of your sample as managers pressure their teams to "just get it done." As mentioned earlier, one of the biggest red flags for an engagement survey is when you find yourself having to work harder to achieve the same participation rate.

Employee engagement surveys are an opportunity to invite feedback that has tremendous potential to make your organization stronger. Make the most of that opportunity by avoiding these more common pitfalls.

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Tags: Communication Change Management Employee Engagement