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Employee Engagement is NOT a Survey (and how to do it without one)

Last week I had a conversation with a leader who explained to me that he really doesn’t buy the whole “employee engagement thing.”  

When I probed a little bit, he revealed that in the past, he worked for an organization that spent big money on an employee engagement survey. Despite there being a lot of fanfare and activity surrounding the survey (and hype about employee engagement), he didn’t feel anything had been helped by the effort. It was a waste of time and money in his estimation.  

To him, employee engagement meant the survey. And, in his experience, the survey hadn’t worked.

But here’s the really important part: That same leader believes in creating a positive work environment for employees. He also understands the importance of communication and leadership. He even understands the value of feedback. All things that represent the very foundation of employee engagement.  

Say it with me—”Employee engagement is not a survey.”  

The fact that we’ve allowed engagement to be defined as a survey almost certainly contributes to why engagement is low in so many organizations.

Another client of mine called last week and was frustrated because the funding for this year’s engagement survey had been cut and she wasn’t sure what to do. Her fear was that they would lose all commitment and focus on engagement. It was another example of how defining engagement as a survey can get in the way of doing the real work of engagement.  

Say it with me again—”Employee engagement is not a survey.”

If you are serious about employee engagement (or at least you’ve been told you need to be), then step away from the survey for a moment and reframe what that means.

Here’s how to make real progress:

  1. Define what employee engagement means at your organization and why it matters. Employee engagement is a phrase that’s achieved near-buzzword status; and while many will tell you it’s important, few can tell you exactly what it means. But the dirty little secret about engagement is that there isn’t a single correct definition. Which means, you must spend time and energy to get very clear on what it means for your organization. This step is critical and it guides everything else you do. For example, you might decide that engagement is about creating a work experience that supports employees in doing work they feel great about. Or maybe you decide engagement means ensuring the well-being of both the employee and the organization at all times. You can then describe how achieving this will impact the things both employees and the organization care about (e.g. flexibility, growth, profit, opportunity, stability, etc.).  
  2. Teach managers how to have meaningful conversations with employees about their work experience. The magic in any engagement program exists in the robust, two-way conversations between employees, managers, and leadership. When managers can sit down with their team and have conversations about their collective work experience and what they can do to improve it, amazing things happen. It’s this open feedback loop that drives engagement. If you’ve done engagement surveys in the past, you know that the survey itself doesn’t actually do anything other than collect information. What matters far more is the follow-up conversations that go deeper and uncover where progress really needs to be made. If you invest in creating a culture where managers and leaders can connect with employees in these ongoing conversations, you will unleash engagement. When these conversations are ongoing, problems and opportunities surface and can be addressed in real time.  
  3. Invest in building trust and making people feel appreciated. There are a lot of different things that can affect how engaged or happy we feel at work. But, when you dig into the data that’s been collected over the past few decades, there are a couple of things that always sit at the top of the list as critical drivers of how we feel about our work. The first is trust. In fact, the Great Places to Work Institute, which is responsible for the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list, looks at trust as the most vital differentiator between their winners and everyone else. The second is to ensure employees feel valued and appreciated. Every year, this factor is one of the drivers for engagement according to Quantum Workplace’s Trends Report, which is an analysis of data from employee survey responses at Best Places to Work. You don’t need a survey to tell you that these things are important, so get to work on them now.
  4. Use surveys to measure and reinforce. Just to be clear, I love and believe deeply in the power of employee surveys. When used correctly, they can be a force for transformation and growth. The problem for too many companies is that they skip past the hard work (see previous points) and go directly to the survey, expecting it to magically solve all of their problems. It won’t. Without a clear understanding of what engagement is and why it matters, plus an environment of open communication between managers and employees, your survey efforts are likely to come up far short of your expectations.

Let’s say it one more time—”Engagement is not a survey.”

You can commit your organization to the work of employee engagement without ever talking about a survey. So, let’s get to work.  

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Jason Lauritsen