The vast majority of business leaders consider employee engagement as one of the most important success factors for their companies (1). The evidence for the impact of employee engagement on business performance is overwhelming. In 2009 Harter et al. published a meta-analysis over 199 studies across 152 organizations, 44 industries, 26 countries and 955,905 employees. The results proved unequivocally that employee engagement has a significant impact on all areas that were measured in the context of the study: ‘The median differences between top-quartile and bottom- quartile units were 12% in customer ratings, 16% in profitability, 18% in productivity, 25% in turnover (high- turnover organizations), 49% in turnover (low-turnover organizations), 49% in safety incidents, 27% in shrinkage, 37% in absenteeism, 41% in patient safety incidents, and 60% in quality (defects).‘ (2).
For this reason most organizations have implemented employee engagement surveys. Tens of millions of employees all around the world are asked on a regular basis how they experience their work, their working conditions, what their opinion is about recent initiatives taken by the company, the trust in their leaders, etc.
The format and frequency of these surveys typically vary between relatively long lists with questions that are sent out to all employees every 1-2 years, to pulse surveys with a limited number of questions, that are sent with a higher frequency to smaller, often specifically targeted, groups. Consultants, HR professionals and line managers subsequently analyze the answers in order to identify and implement actions to increase the engagement level of employees.
Why engagement surveys often do not work
Despite the fact that so many resources and efforts are invested in engagement surveys, the effect seems to be limited. Recent research from Gallup (3) concludes that only 32% of U.S. employees are engaged and that this number worldwide is only 13%. The question therefore presents itself what the contribution of employee engagement surveys is to increasing employee engagement.
One of the reasons why organizations struggle with engagement surveys is that it often proves difficult to identify meaningful follow-up actions. Because of this, many business leaders resort to handing over the survey outcomes to teams of employees who are then “empowered” to generate recommendations. This is often done without a proper mandate (the criteria that proposed solutions need to meet) and sufficient commitment by management to implement the recommendations.
This lack of a proper mandate and commitment is likely to lead to the development of improvement proposals that are not being implemented, or, when they are implemented fail to have a noticeable effect. This can result in a negative impact on employee engagement itself: employees will not understand why they are being asked to complete a survey if nothing meaningful is done with the outcome. Worst case, they will consider the intentions of their leaders as insincere: ‘Why do they ask our opinion if they are not doing anything with it?’
At the end of the day this often leads to a situation where the only parties who are satisfied with engagement surveys are the consultancy firms that facilitate them. No wonder that more and more organizations are considering discontinuing their engagement surveys.
What could a solution look like?
A couple of years ago I worked with an executive leadership team that was also struggling to define meaningful follow-up actions. Because the team wanted to avoid the traps mentioned above, they decided to base their approach on research into employee motivation by Amabile and Kramer (4). This research showed that actions that enable employees to achieve a sense of progress in their daily work, have the biggest positive impact on the motivation of employees. In order to increase motivation, managers should therefore first and foremost focus on supporting the daily progress of the work of their employees and on removing obstacles that hinder them.
With this thinking in mind, the leadership team organized a conference with their direct and indirect reports to discuss the outcomes of the survey. They started the conference by sharing the outcomes of the survey with the participants and asked them to spend the rest of the day to develop potential follow-up actions. These were to be presented at the end of the day to the executive team, who committed to decide on the implementation of these proposals during this report out.
There were two important caveats for the teams as far as their recommendations were concerned:
- The proposed follow-up actions needed to be based on the data and have a direct impact on the progress of the work for the employees in the organization.
- The proposed actions needed to fall within the discretion of the executive leadership team, i.e. the teams could not propose actions for which the executive team would need to consult decision makers elsewhere in the organization.
As a result of this process, the number of proposed follow-up actions was smaller than the number of proposed follow-up actions generated after previous surveys, but the proposals themselves were much more focused and actionable. Most of them were endorsed by the executive team and subsequently implemented.
In the communication around the implementation of these actions it was made clear that these improvements were done as a result of the Engagement Survey. This increased the trust of the employees in the value of engagement surveys.
Three things leaders need to do to make engagement surveys work
This case shows that the fact that it is not always clear what needs to be done with the data generated by engagement surveys, is no reason to abandon this instrument altogether. After all if employee engagement is deemed to be important, it needs to be managed.
There are three things leaders need to do to make engagement surveys work.
1. Timing – Implement engagement surveys only if there is a willingness to act on the outcomes. Do not be afraid to postpone the survey if the organization goes for instance through a painful restructuring operation.
2. Mandate – Give a clear mandate to the teams you expect to come up with recommendations after the survey. There is a direct link between the clarity of this mandate and the quality and impact of the follow-up actions. Therefore leaders need to make sure the follow-up actions are practical and lead to employees achieving a sense of progress in their daily work.
3. Communicate – Finally, leaders need to communicate the outcomes of the survey and the follow-up actions to the employees who participated in the survey. Communicating the results signals transparency, communicating and implementing the outcomes instills trust.