Why Your Survey Isn't Improving Employee Engagement

employee engagement survey organizational planning

An employee engagement survey can be helpful — if done correctly.

Over the past decade, employee engagement has become almost synonymous with the employee survey. The thinking goes that if you want to improve engagement, you must do a survey. This ritual of the employee survey is so commonplace that I'm surprised when I encounter an organization that doesn't survey their employees in some way during the year.

The promise of the employee engagement survey can be adapted to the famous line from "Field of Dreams": "If you survey, they will be engaged." But for many organizations, that isn't the case.

There are survey projects that will absolutely improve engagement. But I've also seen a few that hurt engagement and far too many that seem to have no impact at all. Below are the most common reasons survey projects fail to improve engagement and what to do about each.

1. You Treat the Survey as the Solution

A survey is a measurement tool. Used correctly, it helps you assess the health of your organization's culture and practices. Measurement is data and data alone don't fix anything.

The survey output should be the beginning of your process. It should help answer some questions but is likely to raise even more. Think of an employee survey like you'd think about a blood test at your annual physical exam. The results of a blood test provide lots of data (i.e., blood pressure, cholesterol, etc.) which reveal areas of concern, but it doesn't tell you what's causing the problem or how to fix it. That requires further investigation with your doctor or health coach.

Employee survey data simply help you understand areas of concern. Use that as a starting point to gather more information about what is contributing to problem areas so you can decide on a course of action to address those issues.

2. Your Leaders Aren't Involved in the Process (or Don't Care)

Organizational culture follows the CEO's lead. If the most senior leaders aren't actively and willfully involved in a process to measure, assess and act to improve the employee's work experience, your survey is likely doomed. When executives don't care or don't participate, it permits the next level to do the same and then it cascades downward.

The cardinal rule of asking employees for feedback is that you must acknowledge what you heard and demonstrate some kind of action as a result. If you don't, the employee loses trust, and you lose credibility as a leader.

Before undertaking the next survey project, engage the senior leadership in a conversation about the goals and objectives of the project. Help them understand how an employee's work experience drives their performance. Once executives buy into the value of the process, lay out in writing how they will be expected to follow up once the survey data are in hand. Create some agreements up front that you can hold them accountable to later.

3. Your Survey Process Takes Way Too Long

When you participate in an online poll, you usually get to see the results of the poll immediately. The results are instantaneous. That's our baseline expectation of surveys in today's low-attention-span world. When an employee is asked to provide feedback about how work is going for them and what could be improved, they expect the results to come quickly.

Just a week ago, I heard an organization talk about how it took them four months from when the survey ended to when they shared results with employees. FOUR MONTHS. By the time the information got to employees, they had forgotten about the survey, and it hardly seemed relevant anymore.

Given the technology we have today, there's no excuse for this delay. Even when a deep analysis of data is required, it shouldn't take more than a month to report organizational findings. And there's no reason that a manager shouldn't have the data for his or her own team almost immediately. If your survey technology partner can't or won't accommodate that, you might need a new partner. The faster you can act on feedback, the better.

4. You Don't Have a Plan

The final issue is a close cousin to issue No. 1. If you're serious about improving employee engagement, you should have a thorough, strategic plan to guide your efforts. This plan should include the what, why and how for your employee engagement efforts. A survey might be part of that plan, but it should include a variety of other tactics, including manager communication, employee appreciation, employee development and even benefits strategies.

Here's the bottom line. An employee engagement survey can be an incredibly powerful tool to improve the employee experience at work – when used appropriately. But a survey alone won't fix anything and can even do harm if done carelessly and without the proper supporting plan of action.