8 Reasons Your Employee Engagement Survey Isn’t Working

8 reasons employee engagement survey isn't working

Let’s face it: For many workers, the annual Employee Engagement Survey is meaningless.

Once a year, employees throw their opinions onto a form that goes…well, somewhere. They see no real changes as a result of their participation. The next year, the same questions appear on a survey and the same thing happens. The experience feels transactional and shrouded in mystery, then wildly disappointing as any hopes for change fade quietly into the middle of quarter two. This “traditional” Employee Engagement Survey process actually ends up provoking more disengagement.

Poor Employee Engagement Survey experiences seem to be a part of a bigger problem:  In its most recent report on the State of the American Workplace, Gallup shared some troubling data: only 33% of the American workforce reports feeling engaged at work. These “engaged” folks feel valued, enjoy their work, and are motivated to take part in improving their organizations. The rest are either not engaged (just “going through the motions”), or worse, actively disengaged (actually working to subvert or destroy what others at work build).

In other words, American organizations are failing two-thirds of our workforce. The report makes one thing very clear: If organizations are going to rise to meet this challenge, they are going to have to transform the ways they are used to managing people, and quickly.

The way many organizations think about employee engagement has to shift. As Gallup puts it: “Achieving engagement is simply not as easy as putting together a survey to measure employees’ level of engagement.”

This is not to say the Employee Engagement Survey does nothing for an organization. A survey can provide a safe forum for employees to express their needs and opinions without fear of retribution. It can give leaders critical data that, if used wisely, can result in actions that transform the way things are done around the organization. It can be a springboard, but it has to be used correctly.

What are Organizations Getting Wrong?

Thinking the Employee Engagement Survey = Engagement: Let’s get one thing straight: conducting an annual survey does not mean you are engaging employees. It’s a start. A survey can show employees that you care about their perceptions, but it also signals that you will do something with those perceptions to better the organization. Many organizations, however, stop after the survey is finished. Remember that a survey is your baseline. You’re measuring engagement, not creating it.

Measuring the wrong thing: It should go without saying that companies should ask questions related to actual engagement. This means going beyond asking about pay and benefits, and asking whether people feel valued, if they are supported by their managers, if they are clear on their roles, if they feel like a part of the strategy, etc. There’s an old saying that goes something like, “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.” If you’re not asking about factors related to employee engagement, you won’t have the information you need to manage it.

Making HR fully responsible for changes related to the results: Employee engagement should be the responsibility of every leader and manager at your organization, not one team. The Gallup report cites managers as key to successful employee engagement; often, these surveys signal a need for behavior change on the part of leaders and managers. Without their responsibility and accountability, these changes may never happen. HR can drive communication and support managers, but these leaders have to understand that they will be responsible for addressing the feedback with their employees.

Failing to share what was learned: Of course, to protect anonymity, companies should not share all survey data with a workforce. You do, however, need to find a way to share general lessons learned from the survey. Start by circulating general data/lessons learned next to a few bullet points on what leadership plans to do to address the feedback. Ask managers to share and talk about the feedback with their direct reports. Discuss the lessons at town hall meetings. Being willing to share and talk about the data shows commitment to improvement and builds trust.

Ignoring disconfirming data: A leader sees data telling her that people are unsatisfied with the way their performance is managed. People at the company are looking for more regular feedback from managers, such as coaching, and need training to get there. The leader, however, disagrees. In her opinion, managers can learn to do those things on their own, like she did. Better performance management is simply a question of improving the process. She barrels forward with a new system and decides manager training would be a poor investment, thus ignoring data that disconfirms her story. Six months later, she wonders why people are unsatisfied with the changes. Often, leaders’ perspective of “what’s going on” at an organization doesn’t match reality. Leaders be warned: When you ignore the data, your employees will know you ignored them, and your engagement will suffer.

Going on a Witch Hunt: Survey data is often reported in aggregate, but it can still reveal some unpleasant pieces of feedback. The “Witch Hunt” occurs when a leader focuses in on this unpleasant feedback and does everything he can to find out where it came from. This destroys any psychological safety that was associated with the survey. It sends a clear message that deviance will be punished and disrespects the confidentiality that was assured when people took the survey. Leaders must accept the data and find ways to proactively address general trends; not seek out groups or individuals to punish them.

Failing to use the opportunity for dialogue: There may be some hard truths that come out of an Employee Engagement Survey. People don’t feel like they are included by managers, strategy and roles are unclear, a recent transition was handled poorly. Engaging in true dialogue involves an ability to say and address things that may be messy; this means that leaders have to own whatever comments they received and approach it with the aim to understand the feedback, not attack it or try to defend their positions. Managers can use survey data as a platform to ask hard questions: What can we as a team do to give each other more regular feedback? How can I make you feel like you’re a key part of this company’s strategy? What have we done to prevent these things from happening?

Only engaging employees around survey time: There will often be an uptick in actions to engage employees within a month before and a few months after a survey goes out. An Employee Engagement Survey can generate energy, but this energy has to be sustained. Lessons learned need to result in deep cultural or behavioral change, not “quick fixes.” Employees know superficial change, and can become increasingly cynical if these are the only changes that result from their feedback.

Employee Engagement Is More Than a Survey

Using a survey correctly is only one piece of a major cultural shift that organizations must make in order to improve their employee engagement. The use of a survey, however, signals a lot to employees about how serious an organization is about shifting culture. Used as a platform for dialogue and to own the feedback (however unpleasant), that survey can lay a decent foundation for a bigger change.

So, leaders, you decide: Will this year’s Employee Engagement Survey be the cynicism-producing annual black hole that it is always is? Or can your organization use survey time as an opportunity to transform into a culture that engages employees year-round?

Your Guide to Employee Engagement


Learn how to engage, retain and develop your talent to drive performance.

Sign up to our newsletter and receive your free guide to a more engaged organization.

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

Chelsea Weber

Associate at gothamCulture
Chelsea Weber is personally dedicated to the genuine inclusion of the diverse groups involved in change efforts through deep dialogue, skilled facilitation, and systems thinking. She has supported the design and facilitation of numerous leadership development events for government clients, and she has carried out data collection, analysis, and interpretation activities for several organizational assessment and dialogue efforts.