5 essential questions to ask before your next engagement survey

Surveying employees can be an exercise in futility—and can actually damage morale and commitment—unless you commit to take timely action based on the responses.

You wish your employees were more engaged, so you get ready to conduct another employee engagement survey.

Don’t do it.

At least, don’t do it until you’ve answered the questions below.

If you conduct another employee engagement survey without considering the following questions, you will be part of the dismal history of employee engagement improvement attempts.

Despite all that has been written about employee engagement and the millions of dollars spent on improving it, engagement levels still remain dismally low around the globe, according to the Gallup State of the American Workplace report:

While the state of the U.S. economy has changed substantially since 2000, the state of the American workplace has not. Currently, 30 percent of U.S. workers are engaged in their work, and the ratio of [actively disengaged employees to their engaged counterparts] is roughly 2-to-1, meaning that the vast majority of U.S. workers (70 percent) are not reaching their full potential.

How not to become an employee engagement casualty

If you have conducted engagement surveys and have seen the needle barely move over the years, you know the frustration many employers feel about this topic.

Download this free white paper, “Auditing your Internal Communications,” for a step-by-step guide to assess which communications channels work best for your organization.

How can you avoid being yet another employee engagement casualty? The first step is to make sure you can answer the following questions with a confident “yes.”

For any that elicit a “no,” you should know that until you get that area right, your efforts to improve engagement will probably fail. Not only will you be unlikely to improve engagement, you could actually make it worse.

1. Will we do something based on what we gather?

If not, don’t bother with a survey. Don’t ask about something that won’t change or that you don’t intend to work on regardless of the answer you get.

This is common sense, yet the basic tenet continually gets violated.

Making this mistake will make things worse. As you have undoubtedly experienced, when you solicit their feedback and do nothing with it, employees become even more disengaged and cynical about leadership’s sincerity. When lack of follow-through is a part of a larger pattern of ignoring employee input—especially when it is requested—it creates learned helplessness.

When people experience learned helplessness, they believe, “Nothing I do matters,” so they become passive and apathetic. They don’t try to solve problems nor show initiative, because they’ve learned, “Nothing I do matters—so why even try?”

Commit from the outset that you will do something significant with your findings.

2. Will we report the results before the next century?

Some employers collect survey results and sit on them for months. All the while, employees are wondering, “Hey, what happened to that survey? Are they going to do anything with it?”

Over time, this leads to an accumulation of negative thoughts and feelings toward the employer. When employees finally do get the results, those accumulated perceptions and emotions don’t disappear. They loom in the background, influencing how employees think and feel about leadership’s future decisions and communications.

Seeing the results late (or not at all) leads to the destructive feeling, “They don’t care, so why should I?”

Don’t report just the statistical results. Share what they mean to you. Share your concerns about the areas that need improvement, and why you are concerned about them.

Also, communicate why you care about improving engagement: why it’s a win/win/win. Tell employees what you will be working on right away, what is going to be addressed down the road, and what won’t be changed-and why not.

3. Will we conduct in-depth follow-up interviews?

Even when employees have the chance to write in comments, survey results cannot provide the in-depth insights that individual interviews can. Because they allow for follow-up questions, individual interviews help you learn the “back story” about why employees responded as they did.

Why, for instance, do they believe their input doesn’t matter? What happens at an organizational level for them to believe this?

What does their manager do—and not do—for them to believe this? What specifically could the organization do, and what could their managers do, that would make them feel their input matters?

Asking employees follow-up questions can bring to light specific examples of both good and bad practices that can been be used in management development training. They also provide important insights into the impact of specific leadership practices.

They enable the interviewer to explore the influence these have on how such situations influence how employees feel about their organization and manager and how such situations and practices affect the level of respect and trust employees have in their leaders.

4. Will we commit to helping our managers do their part?

Though we all know that managers are the key to employee engagement, many employers still don’t invest in helping their managers perform their crucial engagement role.

Do you?

Do you provide training and coaching for managers that help them master the behaviors and skills that lead to optimal employee engagement and achieve your business goals?

Does each manager’s own supervisor work with them on an ongoing basis to make sure they stay focused on cultivating these skills and engaging in these practices?

Does each manager have his or her own employee engagement-boosting professional development plan that provides focus and structure to these conversations? Also, are you making coaching available to your managers? Management training without coaching yields minimal results.

Finally, are you truly holding managers accountable for both their engagement scores and their professional development commitments? How are you doing that?

5. Will you address the customized employee experience?

Most managers do not customize the way they handle the “unique recipe” of engagement drivers of each employee. This shortcoming is second only to employers’ not doing anything with survey data as the reason why employee engagement efforts have failed so miserably.

Employee engagement is an individual experience, not aggregated data resulting in a statistical data point.

If an employee’s unique “engagement recipe” of drivers and the manager’s way of managing this employee are not matched, it doesn’t matter what her department or overall organization’s engagement scores are. She will not be as engaged or productive as she could be.

Gathering employee-specific engagement data also allows the employee and her manager to collaborate in a mutually accountable way to help employees perform at their best.

Before you conduct another engagement survey, ask yourself this: Are we considering the fundamentals that will make this a success?

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He is also the author of “Managing Employee Stress and Safety.” Contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter @HumanNatureWork. A version of this article first appeared on TLNT.


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