The Limits of an Engagement Survey

Since Gallup started tracking engagement in 2000 with its famous 12-question survey, we’ve been through two recessions and recoveries, a dot-com bubble (and might be in a second), the proliferation of smartphones and social media... And yet for 14 of those 16 years, employee engagement has been flat, with "engaged employees" hovering between 28% to 32% of the workforce. Given that the most engaged teams are 22% more profitable than disengaged teams and have less turnover (25% for high-turnover organizations and 65% for low-turnover organizations), you'd think companies would be jumping over themselves to improve engagement. So what’s going on?

First, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page in terms of what it means to be engaged:

Gallup categorizes workers as 'engaged' based on their ratings of key workplace elements — such as having an opportunity to do what they do best each day, having someone at work who encourages their development and believing their opinions count at work — that predict important organizational performance outcomes.”

Based on that definition and your own personal experience, you probably have some theories about why engagement levels won’t budge:

  • Maybe “engagement” is actually measuring something else—external conditions like unemployment, or job stress. Or maybe the market just doesn’t produce that many jobs that are inherently engaging.

  • Maybe it’s like measuring individual happiness—an individual tends to be engaged, or not, but they don’t change over time regardless of circumstances.

  • Maybe reasons for disengagement change over time—so even if one issue is addressed, another emerges.

  • Maybe people aren’t reporting their answers accurately, either because they don’t think their answers will lead to change, or due to fear of reprisal.

  • Maybe managers lack incentives to improve engagement, or the organization prioritizes different metrics. 

  • Maybe surveys don’t happen frequently enough, or when they do, changes aren’t made.

For a conscientious leader who wants to create an environment that supports high-performing teams, this uncertainty can be very frustrating. We’ve found that the only sure bet is to listen and take action:   

  1. When you do survey team members, make it as simple as possible, and only do it as frequently as you will commit to changes. Surveys require your team’s time and your company’s money, so make sure they’re easy to take, and easy to analyze. Then, once you’ve discovered potential issues, address them right away, and don’t send out another survey until you’ve made some progress. If you keep asking your team for their feedback but don’t do anything about it, they’ll get cynical or stop contributing, which defeats the whole point of the survey.

  2. Step away from the screen and watch the work happen. Surveys give your team time to reflect after the work has occurred, but a “gemba walk” or “management by walking around” (MBWA) shows you the work in progress. Drop in on your team throughout the day to observe and discuss the work in real-time. But be careful: your role here is to gather insights, not jump in and immediately try to solve the problem. If the team feels that they’re being criticized or punished, they’ll be far less receptive to your visits. Only once you have an understanding of the big picture should you start suggesting small, incremental changes.

 
 

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