Business Leadership Today

Employee Engagement Surveys Work Very Well… If Used Properly


Matt Tenney, Author of Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process

Thanks in large part to the research done by Gallup over the last 20 years, it is now widely known that employee engagement is one of the best predictors of an organization’s performance.

In fact, it could be argued that employee engagement is the most important factor in organizational performance, tied with an effective strategy.

Gallup’s research routinely finds that organizations with high levels of employee engagement realize the following outcomes when compared to organizations with low levels of employee engagement:

  • Roughly 40% lower absenteeism
  • Roughly 50% better employee retention
  • 10-20% better customer ratings
  • Roughly 20% better sales 
  • Roughly 20% higher profits

As a result of these numbers becoming relatively common knowledge, many organizations have rightly determined that employee engagement should be a top priority.

Most organizations have also realized that in order to improve employee engagement, they need to measure it.

These organizations know that in order to get the most reliable feedback, they need to use third-party surveys that employees will generally trust as being anonymous.

However, as I wrote about in great detail in this article on how to improve employee engagement, there has been no statistically significant improvement in the average level of employee engagement across all organizations in the last 20 years.

For many leaders, particularly senior operations leaders, this has created a lot of doubt as to whether or not employee engagement surveys actually work.

Employee engagement surveys do work very well if they are used properly, as part of a well-thought-out strategy for improving employee engagement over the long-term.  However, if used improperly, engagement surveys can actually have a negative impact on employee engagement.

In this article, you will learn how to use employee engagement surveys in a way that can quickly and dramatically improve both employee engagement and retention.

Why Employee Engagement Surveys Don’t Work for Most Organizations

Unfortunately, many organizations approach employee engagement as an “initiative.”

They approach it as a project that has a well-defined starting point and ending point.

As a result of this approach, the logical first step is to conduct a large survey to identify all the areas the organization could improve in terms of increasing employee engagement.

Then, once all the results are in, leaders in Human Resources typically lead the charge for creating a plan for what the organization should do to improve.

Finally, the senior leadership team reviews the plan and decides what actions will be taken.

Although this all sounds very logical, the aforementioned approach virtually guarantees that either very little improvements in employee engagement will be realized, or that employee engagement will actually decline.

Here’s why.

When an organization begins the journey to increased employee engagement with a large, annual survey, they are inundated with a large number of areas for improvement.

Thus, it not only takes a long time to collect and analyze the data (this alone often takes several months), it takes a long time to come up with a plan for addressing all the issues uncovered by the survey.

In the best case scenario, after months have gone by since the survey was closed, organizations tend to only address a few of the many issues uncovered with the survey, and they tend to focus on things like perks and benefits, which have little to no lasting impact on employee engagement.

This leaves employees feeling frustrated, and it can actually reduce employee engagement.

They wonder why it took so long to address their concerns, to then only see a few, low-impact actions being taken.

In the worst-case scenario, the leadership team does nothing at all.  

In these cases, it would be much better to not do the survey at all.

When employees feel like their time was wasted doing a long survey that resulted in no meaningful action, engagement is negatively impacted.

This may help explain why we’ve seen no improvement over the last 20 years in the average levels of employee engagement across all organizations, despite massive investment in employee engagement surveys.

How to Ensure Employee Engagement Surveys Work

To ensure that employee engagement surveys actually facilitate an improvement in employee engagement, the surveys need to be used as part of a well-thought-out, long-term strategy.

Employee engagement should not be approached as an “initiative” with a fixed starting and ending point.

Employee engagement should be approached as an ongoing process that is one of the top priorities for the organization.

By having the long-term view, the approach to improving employee engagement changes instantly.

We approach it like any other long-term effort to make important improvements.

Instead of trying to make drastic changes all at once, we focus on small, sustainable improvements.

Following are a few practical steps you can take to ensure that your employee engagement surveys work.

Focus On The Right Variables

Fortunately, there is over 50 years of research indicating exactly what drives employee engagement.

In essence, it comes down to meeting the core needs people have for thriving at work.

There are 14 of these core needs that are essentially universal—they apply to almost everyone—and that are very strongly correlated with employee engagement and retention.

These needs include things like clarity of expectations, feeling appreciated, and getting regular, helpful feedback. (If you’d like to learn more about all these needs, please see this article on employee engagement strategies.)

By focusing on how well these 14 core needs are being met, you can focus your efforts on the variables that are most likely to move the needle the fastest.

Focus On Direct Supervisors

Although it can be tempting to start working on employee engagement by asking about organization-wide issues, this often does more harm than good, for the reasons listed above.

It can take a long time to change significant, organization-wide issues.

However, changing the behaviors of individual managers can happen much faster, which we’ll explore more deeply in the following paragraphs.

Also, research has found that more than 70% of employee engagement and retention is driven by direct supervisors.

Thus, by starting the work to improve employee engagement by focusing on direct supervisors, you can take action faster, and that action is much more highly leveraged, allowing you to make the biggest impact possible.

Focus On One Area at a Time

When starting out on the journey to sustainable, high levels of employee engagement, you should not do a large survey asking about a wide variety of areas.

Instead, you should plan to do frequent, highly-focused surveys.  

They should go out every two-four weeks and ask only one or two questions on how well direct supervisors are meeting just one of the 14 universal core needs of their team members.

This makes it much easier for employees to quickly complete the surveys.

It also makes it much easier to take action on the feedback before the subsequent survey goes out.

Managers have just one area to focus on instead of having to think about a number of areas at once.

Help Managers Take Action Immediately On Feedback

An absolutely essential element of this powerful strategy is to avoid having a big gap between the frequent employee survey process and the leadership development process.

These two components need to be synchronized as tightly as possible to see significant, consistent improvements in employee engagement and retention.

Ideally, managers should take some type of meaningful action on employee feedback within a few days of the survey going out.

A simple way to achieve this is to have training ready to go on how to consistently meet the needs of employees before any surveys are deployed.

So, instead of getting feedback from employees and then taking time to come up with a plan for addressing deficiencies after the feedback comes in, before any surveys go out, you should have a brief video training ready to go that helps managers to more consistently meet the needs of their employees 

This approach is extremely important for several reasons.

First, when managers get feedback from team members letting them know that they have at least some room to grow in a given area, they are much more likely to want to improve in that area, and more likely to be open to the training.

Second, because the managers have only one new behavior to work on, they are much more likely to take action, and they’re much more likely to create a new habit that sticks.

Third, and perhaps most important, this approach helps ensure that employees see action being taken on their feedback in a matter of days.

Thus, you can build a virtuous cycle of employees sharing feedback, feeling heard, and quickly seeing action taken on their feedback.

I cannot stress enough how important this is.

Research from Gallup suggests that engagement is nearly three times higher when employees strongly agree with the statement:

“My organization acts upon the results of surveys I complete.”

Just by creating this fast-response approach to feedback, you can quickly and dramatically improve employee engagement and retention.

Wait At Least Six Months Before Doing a Survey On Organization-Wide Issues

Although I highly recommend that organizations don’t start the journey to improving employee engagement by asking about organization-wide issues, this doesn’t mean we should never get feedback on those issues.

After following the process described above for six months—using frequent surveys focused on how well direct supervisors are meeting one core need—you should be ready to do a survey on how well the organization as a whole is meeting a core need.

You will have built up a lot of confidence and trust in leadership.

Employees will have seen 12 examples of meaningful action being taken on the feedback they’ve provided.

Thus, they’ll have greater trust that meaningful action will be taken on feedback they provide about the organization as a whole.

That being said, it’s important to set the expectation that it may take a little longer for meaningful change to happen due to the increased complexity of making changes that impact an entire organization.

Also, before any surveys go out, I highly recommend that the senior leadership team and other stakeholders ensure that they have set aside time on their calendars to explore the feedback as soon as possible after a survey closes.

Ideally, the leadership team should even have some rough ideas of what they could do to improve before the results come back.

Use Focused Surveys for Organization-wide Issues, Too

Assuming you’ve followed the guidance in the previous paragraph, your ability to quickly respond to feedback at the organization level will be much greater.

However, there is one last essential piece of the puzzle.

Just as with the surveys focused on direct supervisors, the initial surveys asking about how well the organization as a whole is meeting the core needs of team members should be highly-focused on just one core need at a time.

This will help the leadership team to be thinking about possible areas for improvement before the survey even goes out.

Also, this will help dramatically improve the speed with which the leadership team can respond to, and take meaningful action toward addressing, the feedback received from employees. 

As described above, the speed with which the leadership team acts upon feedback has a significant impact on employee engagement and retention.

Wait At Least a Year To Do an Exploratory Survey

There is often a strong urge to do what’s called an “exploratory survey,” which involves asking open-ended questions to uncover issues the leadership team doesn’t yet know about.

I strongly recommend waiting at least a year to do this type of survey.

The issues that are uncovered with these types of surveys are often the most challenging to solve.

If a challenging issue is uncovered, and the leadership team is unable to resolve the issue in a timely manner, employees will lose confidence and trust in the leadership team.

This can actually have a negative impact on employee engagement.

Also, it’s hard to know with any level of certainty what type of impact resolving the issue will have.

The leadership team could end up investing dozens or hundreds of hours resolving an issue that doesn’t create that much impact on employee engagement.

However, if you’ve taken a full year to focus on meeting the 14 universal core needs that research has shown are most strongly correlated with employee engagement, you will have already improved employee engagement dramatically.

You will have also built up employees’ confidence that meaningful action will take place as a result of their feedback.

Thus, at this point, you could safely invest some energy into further employee engagement.

For these exploratory surveys, you should set the expectation that it will take longer to respond to, and act on, the feedback.

And, the leadership team should ensure that they have the time to quickly review, respond to, and potentially act on the feedback they receive from these surveys.

Having Success With Employee Engagement Surveys

By following the guidance in this article, you should be able to use employee engagement surveys in a way that does much more than just give a snapshot of how engaged your employees are.

You should be able to use surveys as part of a powerful strategy for quickly and dramatically improving employee engagement.

With the right approach, employees will feel that you are truly concerned about helping them thrive, both professionally and personally, instead of feeling like you just want their feedback to get an award, or get more productivity out of them.

If your leadership team can approach employee engagement with this mindset of truly seeking to meet the core needs of employees and help them thrive, your organization will be able to realize sustainable high performance for years to come.

Perhaps most important, you’ll be making a positive impact on the lives of your team members and thereby making our world a better place.

Matt Tenney has been working to help organizations develop leaders who improve employee engagement and performance since 2012. He is the author of three leadership books, including the groundbreaking, highly acclaimed book Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process.

Matt’s ideas have been featured in major media outlets and his clients include numerous national associations and Fortune 500 companies.

He is often invited to deliver keynote speeches at conferences and leadership meetings, and is known for delivering valuable, actionable insights in a way that is memorable and deeply inspiring.

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