Engagement Survey! Oh my!

Jill[1] and I were brainstorming about topics for this year’s blog posts. It helps to have a roadmap because the deadlines do catch up to us fast!  We both agreed that we love the topic of employee engagement.  Jill is passionate about the danger of the annual engagement survey.  I get excited about the importance of ongoing and personal supervisor – employee communication to real engagement.  And then we found two thought-provoking articles (see below) about engagement surveys and what to do instead.
So, let’s talk about employee engagement.  Engagement is the intrinsic motivation that an employee feels – that what they are doing is important, valuable and valued.  It is the internal driver that allows for discretionary energy expenditures, going above and beyond, being innovative, and caring about the outcome.
Engaged workforces demonstrate increased productivity and innovation and reduced risk. And engagement is imperative for customer service excellence…you can’t care about the customer if you don’t care about the organization, and you can’t care about the organization if you don’t feel cared about by the organization.
The challenge is to understand the attributes that go into creating an engaged and engaging work environment.[2] And then, in this critical age of accountability, our next challenge is how do we measure it?
We’ve all heard the phrase, “what gets measured, gets done.”  Therefore, if we measure engagement, we should be creating an engaged workforce.  In her article, “The 5 Stages of Employee Engagement Survey Results,” (2019)[3] Elizabeth Williams compares how companies respond to the annual engagement survey results with the five stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, sadness and acceptance.  She does a wonderful job of describing how companies go through the process without ever really finding meaningful ways of creating an engaged workforce.  Essentially, the results are discussed, made meaningless and shelved until the following year – except for the poor person or committee that is assigned to fix it all on top of their regular jobs.
What Williams suggests and what is validated in Liz Ryan’s article, “Ditch the Employee Engagement Survey…,”[4] is that engagement is the responsibility of all levels of leadership and is a year-round job.  Ryan describes predominantly low-tech, high-touch strategies to assess engagement levels. She suggests creating easy avenues for people to inform management about the pulse of the organization…and then encourages that management actually listen.
Ryan talks about the difference between content and context in how we gather information. Words are only a small part of the message.  Non-verbals and paraverbals become the context for the meaning and intent of the words.  She sees the survey itself is a disengagement tool.  She describes the context of the survey (what it says about the relationship of management and employee) as follows:
Thanks for completing our survey. We want your opinions, but only in a very specific format and only in answer to certain questions that we have already developed. Our biggest concern is the tabulation of the survey…We’re not trying to develop a relationship with you or anything!…
While her context description sounds somewhat harsh and cynical, her message is clear.  If you want to talk genuinely about engagement, you (managers and leaders) need to be engaged with your people.  Ask them how they are doing, how they like working with the organization, what they need in order to do a better job.  Then listen to their answers and follow-up.
Ryan describes ten formats for gathering this information from informal chats, strategic lunch room visits, and scheduled 1:1s to town halls and suggestion boxes.
And then, there has to be a timely and thoughtful way to respond to the information that is gathered.  For too many employees, sharing their insights is like speaking into a black hole.  It feels like the information is going nowhere.  “Thank you for sharing” is not enough. And of course, this fosters disengagement.
How do you get back to folks and when? I have taken your idea/concern/suggestion to x meeting.  We are discussing it.  Please know that it will take time to implement.  I will keep you posted on progress in y weeks/months – please don’t let it be years! And put that date on the calendar, keep it on the meeting agenda…
If the idea/concern/suggestion is not going to rise to an agenda item, then what do you do?  You can still go back to the employee and let them know.  Discuss other ideas or strategies to address the idea or concern…and/or explain why it won’t/can’t happen now.
And thank them for their suggestion…ask them to continue to bring ideas forward even if every suggestion isn’t acted on.  Remind them that often just asking a question generates a whole new line of thinking.
[1] Jill Bachman is a Thunderbird Leadership consultant who is a regular contributor, collaborator and partner in TLC’s blog and Tips posts.
[2] See http://thunderbirdleadership.com/2018/02/16/power-tools-work/ as well as references in that article that discuss engagement attributes in more depth:
Forbringer, Louis R. (2002) Overview of the Gallup Organization’s Q-12 Survey, O.E. Solutions.
Wiseman, Liz and McKeown, Greg. (2010) Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter. New York: Harper Collins.
Pink, Daniel. (2009) Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books.
[3] https://www.business2community.com/human-resources/the-5-stages-of-employee-engagement-survey-results-02161015
[4] https://www.forbes.com/sites/lizryan/2016/09/18/ditch-the-employee-engagement-survey-here-are-ten-better-ways-to-listen/#44a453f52779