Ensuring Effective Employee Engagement Surveys – Now More Than Ever

Right before the pandemic hit, I received an email from a CEO who was a previous coaching client. He had sent me an article he’d read about Employee Engagement surveys, written by an academic professor who clearly had never stepped foot inside a company. The article had a funny tone to it, probably to create a splash — certainly written trying to provoke, but clearly unfocussed and uninformed. It was unimpressive for an Ivy League professor and, although there were both big and small kernels of truth in what he was saying, most of it missed the mark.

Today more than ever, considering the Great Resignation, the labor shortages, inflation, and stressors in the pandemic world, being in tune with your employees is critical. So, I wanted to share some of the highlights of my response to that article with you.

Keys to Highly Effective Employee Engagement Surveys

Listening to your employees is critical in building engagement, productivity, a healthy culture, a strong employment brand, and an excellent employee experience. Remember, people support what they help build and they seldom argue with their own input. And although an Employee Engagement Survey is not the only avenue to gather input from your staff, it certainly is an important component. The key is to run them well.

Do this for the right reason

First and foremost, if you aren’t committed to fully leveraging the input and feedback of your employees, don’t run a survey.  Don’t raise their hopes.  Don’t go through the motions. When you ask employees for feedback, the strong implicit expectation is that it will be listened to, and that the organization will change something as a result. It’s a two-way street. If this is the first survey, employees are excited to think that concerns will be given due consideration, and that this will result in necessary changes and improvements.

So, failure to quickly loop back with transparency — to openly communicate about which feedback will be translated into actions, or why some won’t – gravely violates employee trust and any sense of importance. In addition to wasting resources, you will have watered whatever seeds of disenchantment already existed in your organization.  And if management has run this drill more than once without results being shared and some actions taken, the resulting cynicism will negate any possible chance of gathering candid feedback of value going forward.  Employees that don’t feel heard and valued wonder why they should squander their value on the organization.  So much for engagement.

If you’re committed to making Engagement surveys a valuable tool, you’ll need to pay strict attention to the results of the survey without debate or defensiveness. Listen to the obvious: what is working and what needs some attention. Then listen for the sub-context, what is unsaid but shimmering just beneath the surface. Look for the insights that become valued takeaways.

Don’t try to spin the data

Too many times I’ve witnessed companies “spin” the survey data so nothing looked bad. They believed they could fool employees because employee input had been gathered individually. Employees see right through that game. Just take the data for what it is, own it, set egos aside, and take some good steps to make things better. This is all the employees really want: not perfection, but empathy and evidence of improvement.

Maybe you’ve had a similar experience. I ran a massive engagement survey when I was working for a large hospital. When we compared current results to the previous three surveys, it felt like we were in an echo chamber: employees were simply repeating the same concerns that had surfaced repeatedly. This ongoing discontentment included how little trust employees had of the CEO and Executive Team, data which was largely glossed over and ignored. An executive had the temerity to suggest the need for focus groups to understand what the employees were “really” saying. Sadly, we already knew what they were really saying.

Execution is in the details

If you are planning to conduct the survey and act on the findings, like anything, execution makes all the difference. Done well, the Employee Engagement Survey can proffer a big payoff. Done poorly or without serious intent, it crashes. Therefore, if you are going to do it, do it well. Create a strong Project Team to create well-worded questions and to implement it, be intentional about how it is communicated to employees, and make promises about the feedback that you can keep.

Although participation rates can be impacted by many factors,  a low participation rate can also be a data point.  If the organization has consistently failed to respond to the feedback in the past, employees are less likely to bother to share thoughtful feedback.

Never make participation mandatory, but help remove friction to make it easier for employees to take the survey with anonymity assured. Some companies offer pizza parties or other incentives to encourage participation. Benchmarking a good participation rate is a good start, but more importantly, evaluate the context of where the organization is when the survey is given.

Engagement propels business, not satisfaction or happiness

Well-designed Engagement surveys have become more useful tools: more validated and reliable. Earlier, assessing satisfaction and happiness were considered the standard, but neither of these factors drive business – it just means people aren’t particularly annoyed and might stick around. But measuring engagement, along with other indices like enablement, can be valuable if vetted correctly.

How much is too much and how to grab short-attention spans

In general, the annual survey is becoming obsolete because life moves too fast. What was surveyed even six months ago is becoming old news. Generally, feedback collected in a long survey the prior year may no longer be accurate — so many things could have changed.

Also, most of us are rushing with too much to read.  We are also suffering from survey fatigue. Everyone wants to mine your data today.  I can’t even take my car in for its periodic oil change without being accosted by the mechanic to respond with all “10’s.” Hotels, my online orders, and even my dentist (whom I love) send me surveys.

Don’t stop asking for feedback, but use a short pulse survey more frequently. Ask the hard questions so it counts.  Take a lesson from the brevity of Tik-tok and Twitter. I even have used 1-2 question surveys to get a real pulse. Every organization must figure the best methodology for their situation and staff. And yes, sometimes a longer survey can be appropriate…but not too long.

Another classic mistake companies make with their Employee Engagement Survey feedback is trying to solve “world hunger.” Of course, I mean that metaphorically.  But don’t take on a huge problem that will take years to fix or a myriad of issues. Pick one to two finite items that can be improved in 2 to 4 months, see them through, and celebrate the victory with employees before moving on to the next issue that needs solving. Taking on too much will doom your outcomes, disappointing your employees and discouraging engagement.

One more tool

Survey results are just another data point that should be integrated with other data points about your workforce management. Surveys do not replace the need to seek employee feedback informally and formally throughout the year.

Organizations that use this tool for the right reasons, do it well, feed back the feedback, and then act, will be the winners.







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