The following is a story from one of our clients on engagement surveys:
With the year-end coming, I got the engagement survey my boss sends every year. I was excited! I put a lot of effort into last year because I had good feedback to give and some good ideas to try. But my initial excitement dropped when I remembered that I hadn’t heard back on anything I had written.
“I had great ideas last year, where did they go?” they explained. I asked around. Other coworkers said they never did those because who reads the answers anyway? Frustrated, I went to speak to my boss directly.
They listened and said to make sure those go in this year. I tried to explain that I had already done that last year. They looked perplexed and said that they would look into it.
A week later, I followed up, and they apologized for being too busy to check. The survey was set to close later that day. Disengaged and disheartened, I decided to skip it this year. You have other priorities for your time anyway.
This is an example of a story we are beginning to hear often. We see engagement surveys failing, and here’s why.
We have all heard the term employee engagement, but what does it mean? Employee engagement refers to the degree to which employees feel connected to and invested in their work, colleagues, and the organization as a whole. Engaged employees are more committed to their work, motivated to go above and beyond in their work and are more likely to stay with the company long-term.
Why is this important? High employee engagement has been linked to various positive outcomes for organizations, including increasing productivity by 22% and 25-65% lower turnover rates.
By understanding employees’ level of engagement, organizations can develop strategies and implement changes to improve the workplace experience, increase employee retention, and enhance overall organizational performance. If engagement is something this important and impactful, logic leads us to the desire to measure it! In comes the engagement survey.
Unfortunately, the workforce as a whole is performing poorly in this regard. Just 21% of the global workforce felt engaged in 2021. This means that 79% are not engaged at work. 1 in 5 employees is a low bar.
Several factors can be linked to high employee engagement. One of the most important is our work’s sense of purpose or meaning. When we feel that our work is meaningful and contributes to a larger goal or mission, we are more likely to be engaged and motivated to do our best work. Another important factor is a positive work culture driven by clear communication and feedback from managers, opportunities for growth and development and a clear vision, values and purpose.
Considering only 21% are engaged, we can see that most employees are failing to find meaning in their work, and organizations are failing to provide a positive culture. So how do we improve employee engagement? We start by measuring it. In comes the engagement survey.
Engagement surveys are tools used by organizations to measure and assess not only employee engagement but also employee satisfaction and overall sentiment toward the workplace. Organizations want to gather data on employee perspectives, behaviours and areas of improvement to understand and address any issues or concerns that may exist.
Many large and small organizations use engagement surveys to understand their workforce and to drive change. Engagement surveys typically consist of a series of questions that employees answer anonymously (or somewhat anonymously) and provide feedback on the topics listed above. These can be done annually, semi-annually or be tied to different human resources events like hiring, firing or transfers.
Because of low engagement numbers and their impact, engagement surveys have been a staple in the HR departments’ toolbox because they provide a structured way to measure data. Some example questions could be:
- Do you have the tools and training needed to do your job?
- Are you happy with your current salary and benefits?
- Do you feel free to express your opinions without fear of retribution?
- Do you believe the organization considers your best interests when making business decisions?
Engagement surveys are valuable for both employees and employers, as they offer employees a platform to voice their opinions and provide feedback while giving employers insights into the overall health of their organization and opportunities for improvement. But are they working? 41% of HR professionals say employee engagement is staying the same or getting worse. So why are they failing?
Why do engagement surveys fail?
Through working with our clients and their organizational measurement and change, we saw patterns in what they had been doing. Here are the top 5 reasons the system of engagement surveys and tools are failing:
#1 Poor understanding and trust
“I don’t understand why we are doing this… How is this going to help?”
Engagement surveys require the support and commitment of our senior leadership. Poor buy-in from leaders and employees is the critical reason engagement surveys fail. If leaders do not prioritize or convey the objectives and importance of collecting and applying this data, it can undermine the entire process and negatively impact employee involvement. For example, a manager providing no context, timeline or reassurance of openness to feedback.
Then, employees won’t fully understand or appreciate the value or benefits of the engagement survey process and may not fully commit or take it seriously. Skepticism and disinterest can lead to lower response rates, rushed answers, or even withheld information. It can also lead to superficial or insincere answers, which can skew the survey results and hinder the organization’s ability to make meaningful improvements.
For those of us that do have important feedback to share, do we feel safe to share it? There could be concern about the consequences of providing honest feedback, especially if the survey’s objectives are unclear.
#2 Poor survey design
“This takes too much time out of my day, I have other things to do!”
Some engagement surveys simply ask the wrong questions. If the survey doesn’t include questions that address the most critical factors impacting employee engagement or use questions that draw meaningful answers, it may not provide the insights needed to make any improvements.
For example, questions may be ambiguous, leading or poorly worded, causing confusion, introducing bias into the survey results, or undermining the validity of the data. Surveys may also rely solely on quantitative questions without considering qualitative feedback can limit the insights gained from the survey. Qualitative data provides valuable context and a deeper understanding of employee concerns.
Engagement surveys can also be too drawn out or complicated, leading to survey fatigue and causing employees to lose interest or provide less thoughtful responses. Conversely, a survey with too few questions may not capture enough information to draw conclusions accurately. They may also fail to capture deeper cultural issues that employees experience.
Finally, and the most crucial aspect of design, is anonymity. If we fear that our responses could be traced back to us, there is little chance honest feedback will be provided.
#3 Lack of actionable data and delivery
“Why are they asking me this? What are we supposed to see from this?”
From poor design comes poor data. One of the most significant pain points of engagement surveys is that they often fail to produce actionable data. When organizations collect data but do not properly organize, analyze, or interpret the results, it can lead to confusion, incorrect conclusions, or a failure to identify the key concerns and suggestions employees raise. This issue can make it challenging to identify the specific areas that require improvement.
Analyzing survey responses and identifying patterns can be a complex process that requires significant time and expertise. Without a streamlined framework for analysis, the delivery of any reports could take weeks or even months. With this delay, the organization and its employees are already changing. By the time the results get into the hands of senior leadership, it might be too late to translate into meaningful change.
#4 No action plan or timeline
“What are we supposed to do now? What should we prioritize?”
Once the data reports are out, a common pitfall in implementing engagement surveys is the lack of a clear action plan or timeline for addressing employee issues and suggestions. Organizations may struggle to make meaningful improvements in response to the survey results without a well-defined plan or schedule. Moreover, every organization has finite resources. Without prioritizing, organizations may struggle to identify the most critical issues raised in the survey and prioritize their efforts effectively.
No plan or timeline can lead to employee frustration and an even stronger lack of trust in the change process. We may feel that our feedback is not valued or that the organization is not committed to making meaningful changes. This can lead to a decline in future survey participation, and the downward spiral continues.
#5 No follow-up
“It’s been a year already? But we haven’t done anything from last year’s engagement survey yet!”
The changes we decided to make, did they work? The lack of follow-up is the final reason why the engagement survey process fails. Follow-up is essential in ensuring that the organization acts on the feedback collected in the survey. Without follow-up, an engagement survey process may become a mere compliance exercise. We may feel that our feedback is not valued, and there is a risk of even more disconnect with the organization. Follow-up is a critical component of engagement surveys, and without it, the effectiveness of the process is unknown.
The data is in
Engagement surveys often fail to deliver on their intended purpose due to poor understanding and trust, poor survey design, lack of actionable data and delivery, no action plan or timeline, and lack of follow-up. Surveys are often viewed as a quick-fix solution that ends at submission.
Other options exist to drive organization change that can help buy-in from senior leaders and employees, create well-designed surveys that address critical factors, analyze both quantitative and qualitative data, develop a clear action plan and timeline, and follow up to demonstrate that feedback is valued and meaningful changes are being made.
The objective is clear: organizations want to create a positive work environment that benefits employees and employers. So, it’s time for organizations to take a different approach.
About the author
Jason Boivin, Lead Content Strategist at innerlogic.
Jason holds a master’s degree in Human Kinetics with a concentration in Intervention and Consultation from the University of Ottawa in Canada, is a Certified Mental Performance Consultant with the Canadian Sport Psychology Association, and is a Chartered Professional Coach with the Coaches Association of Canada.
Jason is driven by his passion for helping others succeed in a meaningful way. Through his extensive work with high-performance teams, Jason has developed a deep appreciation for culture and its impact on relationships and results.