You don’t need a survey to gauge employee engagement

Rather than go through the formality of a survey, just talk with—and listen to—your employees. Try out these six questions.

With a veritable army of scientific researchers, the Gallup Organization spent decades developing its famed Q12 Survey.

It now packages and markets this tool for organizations seeking to determine the level of employee engagement, calling it “The Only 12 Questions that Matter.”

To date, more than 25 million employees worldwide have taken that survey, and the findings reveal that most workers are not engaged in their jobs.

The reality of engagement for employers

If you are a leader, manager, or employer of any kind, you can’t afford not to know whether your workers are engaged. There’s too much at stake.

Engaged employees are 87 percent less likely to leave their employer than those who are disengaged (source: Corporate Leadership Council). As for profit, according to the ISR Employee Engagement Report by Towers Perrin, companies with high levels of employee engagement improved 19.2 percent in operating income, while companies with low levels of employee engagement declined 32.7 percent over the same period.

However, I don’t believe that a survey is the only way—or even the best way—to determine whether your people are bringing their very best to the workplace and are committed to your organization for the long haul.

Surveys can be very effective when you have both the time and the financial resources to go through the expensive and laborious process of disseminating them, compiling the data, and then initiating policies and procedures based upon them.

What you can do

If you don’t, here’s an idea: Ask them. Get eyeball to eyeball, and strike up a conversation.

Ask. Listen. And then make decisions based on what you learn. (Yeah, it’s old school, I know, but it works.)

If you go one on one and ask your people interesting, open-ended questions, you’ll be amazed how revealing their answers can be and how that information helps you engage them to perform at higher levels and retains them for longer periods of time.

However, to assure you get the candid, honest answers you need, do this casually as an informal conversation rather than approaching them saying, “I need you to come to my office on Thursday at 3 pm for a little talk.”

Remember the 80/20 conversation rule

When you talk to your direct reports, let them do most of the talking. Don’t hit them with a barrage of probing questions out of left field, as that would make anyone highly suspicious of your motives and cause them to shut down or give you only the answers they think you are looking for, rather than the candid, revealing responses you need.

Here are six interesting questions your employees probably have never been asked:

  • Before you started, you had a mental picture of what this job would be like. How does the actual movie compare with the trailer? (Great for a new hire who’s been on the job for a year or less.)
  • If your birthday were next week and you could ask for change or two that would dramatically improve this job for you, what would those be? (Helps reveal what they don’t like about their job. If you can’t change those things, chances are they are going to circulate their resume.)
  • When your friends and family members ask you what you do when you’re at work, what kinds of adjectives do you use to describe it? Feel free to list the good, the bad, and the ugly. (Are you in alignment? Do they use any of the same terms that are used in your company’s mission statement or core values? Is what you hired them to do what they are actually doing?)
  • Do you feel we’re fully using your talents and skills? What can you do that we might not be aware of? (Are they challenged or are they bored? Does their answer reveal a desire for growth or learning a new skill?)
  • If a high school kid shadowed you for a day and asked you whether this was a good way to earn a living and live a good life, what would you tell them? (Helps to determine whether they are satisfied with their compensation and things like work/life balance.)
  • Though it’s important that we remain profitable, we also want to make an impact in our community and be good stewards of our environment, etc. How do you think we are doing? What should we be doing or not doing? (How aware and/or involved are they in whatever social mission your company supports? Do they think it’s important? Does this align with their values and beliefs? )

Obviously, these kinds of questions should be tweaked, tailored, and customized to fit the level and duties of each employee. The primary goal is to foster an open dialogue with employees that helps you develop as a leader and to create an environment where your people are inspired to work harder, perform better, and stay longer.

What questions are you asking to gauge the engagement of your people?

A version of this article originally ran on Eric Chester’s Reviving Work Ethic blog. Chester is the author of four books, most recently “Getting Them to Give a Damn,” and president of Lakewood, Colo.-based Reviving Work Ethic, a speaking and consulting firm. Contact him at

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