Why conversations trump employee engagement surveys

Recruiting, motivating and retaining employees comes down to workplace satisfaction, of course—staff polls, not so much. The author suggests talking to people instead.

Do engagement surveys work?

Millions of words have been written about employee engagement, and over a billion dollars is spent annually in the U.S. on surveys and improvement interventions.

What progress has been made, though?

In Gallup’s Worldwide Employee Engagement Crisis report, the authors assert:

  • “Though there have been some slight ebbs and flows, less than one-third of U.S. employees have been engaged in their jobs and workplaces during these 15 years.”
  • “Employee engagement has barely budged in years.”
  • “Measuring engagement isn’t sufficient to improve it.”

Three key factors stand out: execution flaws, paradigm flaws, courage flaws.

Execution flaws. Most HR pros will concede the following problems:

  • Survey results are kept a mystery. Not reporting results tells the staff, “Your input doesn’t really matter; nor do we care about you.” It also fosters a learned helplessness: Employees stop trying to make a difference or show initiative.
  • The results are reported, but aren’t acted upon. In this mode, employees clam up. They don’t share ideas for process improvements nor point out obstacles to productivity. The prevailing mindset becomes: “Why speak up? It won’t make a difference.”
  • Improving engagement is deemed an “HR thing” rather than “everybody’s thing.” Everyone must play a role in employee engagement, from the CEO to front-line contributors. Each must understand their role, take responsibility and be held accountable. Human resources should be a facilitator of engagement, not the driver.
  • “Solutions” such as fun committees, employee appreciation days and other goodies, gimmicks and galas are seen as the answer. This is “the American Way” when it comes to morale, motivation or engagement. The default response is finding and using the latest management fad or perk from a “Best Places to Work” list. Throwing goodies, gimmicks and gala event “solutions” at engagement problems says, “Management just doesn’t get it,” and, “Management isn’t really serious or sincere about doing anything about this issue.”

Enacting viable solutions requires recognizing the paradigm flaws that keep most organizations from addressing engagement.

Paradigm flaws. Engagement surveys, even those soliciting comments, give you only the tip of the iceberg. When these surveys are deemed a comprehensive gauge, employers miss out on valuable, actionable information that can be elicited only through in-depth, one-on-one interviews. Furthermore, these direct exchanges can help you to:

  • Target A-list talent in hard-to-fill positions to learn what’s most important to them and whether your organization delivers it.
  • Gather useful information about pivotal manager/employee interactions that boost or hurt engagement and productivity.
  • Identify bright spots—examples of departments where employee engagement is high—and those managers’ successful practices to spread throughout the organization.
  • Gather stories you can use in employer branding and new hire orientation.

Too often, engagement is viewed as a statistic rather than an experience. When poring over survey results, you might see engagement in terms of organizational and divisional statistics.

In reality, what matters to each employee is their experience, not your stats. If Justin in your IT department doesn’t feel a sense of purpose or doesn’t believe his boss cares about him as a person, it offers little solace that, on average, most of his co-workers feel this way. That statistic doesn’t affect his engagement.

Also, each employee has an engagement recipe, including a unique combination of drives, de-motivators and preferred feedback style. To create high engagement, customize your management approach to an individual’s personality and satisfaction recipe.

Employee engagement is about conversations, not surveys.

Courage flaws

Most people get anxious giving or receiving feedback.

Hiding behind a survey to gather data rather than having candid conversations has huge repercussions.

If managers don’t have the skills to bring up touchy issues without triggering defensiveness, if they can’t manage their own discomfort or de-escalate that of others, why would they initiate potentially heated conversations?

Thus, for staffers to have effective ongoing engagement conversations, managers need training and coaching to facilitate them. Investing in giving managers these interpersonal skills might be the most important step an organization can take to improve engagement.

Next steps

Don’t sink time, money and social capital into yet another survey followed by ineffective “solutions.”

Try the following:

  • Discuss candidly which execution failures you are committing.
  • Discuss which faulty paradigms that underpin your strategy.
  • Discuss whether, and how, your leaders and managers are avoiding the sometimes difficult conversations required for engagement to improve.
  • Discuss candidly the cost of not having your desired level of employee engagement and whether you are serious about enjoying the benefits of engagement, including:
  1. Great productivity and value generated per employee
  2. Better customer service
  3. Lower voluntary turnover
  4. Greater ability to attract A-list talent
  • Conduct in-depth interviews with employees in hard-to-fill, ultra-competitive, high-value positions, as well as conversations with the “Steady Eddies” who are the backbone of your organization and have a different “engagement recipe” from that of your high flyers.
  • Invest in helping your managers develop the requisite interpersonal skills for employees to engage comfortably in candid, mutually beneficial conversations and interviews that provide the feedback your organization needs for an engaged, productive workforce.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@Work. You can follow him on Twitter at @HumanNatureWork. A version of this post first appeared on TLNT.

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