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I must confess that when employee engagement surveys started to become popular, I was skeptical about their value. I chalked them up as another passing fad that created lots of sizzle, but little substance.

As luck would have it, I joined an organization just as they were launching their annual survey process and I had the responsibility to lead the process for my business units. Since I was new to the company and this would be one of my debut projects, I had to replace my skepticism with a determination to ensure that the survey process contributed high value and high impact for my client leaders and their teams.

It worked! I am now convinced that employee engagement surveys can be an excellent tool to gather relevant data about how employees feel about their organizations. ­­But the potency of the process is not in gathering the information or even understanding the results—the heart of the process is translating the information into meaningful action. Employee engagement surveys will only make a difference for your organization if you support them with realistic action plans to which leaders are held accountable.

The use of the employee engagement survey is a fairly common practice for many organizations. This is no surprise, since the link between employee engagement and company performance is well established. According to Gallup, companies with highly engaged employees have 3.9 times the earnings per share (EPS) growth rate compared to those with low engagement scores. Yet there is no common agreement on many aspects of the process, what to measure or even the definition of engagement. However, there are some guiding principles that will greatly enhance the effectiveness and value of using engagement surveys.

Guiding Principles

Confidentiality and Anonymity: People must be able to complete the surveys anonymously without exception. Use a third party to distribute and collect the surveys and to compile the data. Remember the power of engagement surveys is to obtain candid, unfiltered feedback, which is easier to gather when employees aren’t concerned about being identified.

Leadership Commitment: Be absolutely certain that the leaders from the top executive down support the survey process.  This means that:

  • You must clarify how the leaders define engagement and what they want to measure. Identify any issues on which they do not want to solicit feedback. A general rule of thumb is never ask a question when you don’t intend to address the issue.
  • Leadership must be open to “listening” to the feedback, be willing to communicate the results (both positive and negative) and translate those results into action. There may be situations when the organization does not choose to act upon specific feedback, but the reasons for those decisions should be honestly communicated.

Timing: There are three primary considerations when it comes to timing:

  • First, talk to your business leaders to evaluate the “rhythm of the business. “ Are there segments of time when a significant number of people will be out of the office, when key product launch deadlines or tradeshows are looming, or other events that will impact participation? Schedule a time that is best suited to your business cycle.
  • Second, look at the HR calendar. No one wants to be inundated by HR initiatives, and you don’t want to overload your team. Avoid scheduling the engagement survey on the heels of other significant HR work.
  • Don’t assume that you have to conduct a survey every year. The real value of the process comes from employees trusting that their organization is listening to and acting upon their feedback. It is far more effective to space the surveys at intervals that allow the organization time to have great follow-up, than to rush through actions to meet the next year’s survey deadline. An annual survey may work for some organizations, but eighteen to twenty-four months is the guideline I prefer.

Identify the Employee Groups: While this may seem obvious, it may require some thought. Remove contractors from the distribution (including contractors in an engagement survey may jeopardize their non-employee status). Are there specific business units or categories of employees that are too different from the overall organization and should be handled differently? Once you have identified the people to be surveyed make sure everyone receives a survey—even if it means using different delivery methods.

Designing or Selecting the Right Survey: Now that you have the basics sorted out, you are ready to make the decisions about the survey content. Whether you design the survey in-house, select a product off the shelf or hire a survey company will depend on several factors, such as the size and complexity of the organization; internal skills, resources and budget; the need for language translation; in-house availability of people trained in survey development and similar issues. One consideration that is often overlooked in the decision process is the need for benchmarking. Regardless of what survey form you use, you will want to include a number of core questions that you will use in subsequent surveys. These core questions will become your internal benchmarks to monitor long-term trends.

Some organizations may also place a premium on external benchmarking in key areas. If this is the case, you will be best served to hire a vendor who specializes in employee engagement surveys. They will be able to provide core questions and results from other organizations that you can use for external benchmarking. If you are interested in external benchmarking, be sure you define the kinds of organizations against whom you want to be compared and select a vendor that can give you that data.

Next week we will take a look at finding the “hidden gems” as you review the survey results and the all-important Action Planning process.


As noted in the previous post, engagement surveys are useful for two things: capturing mass information on general trends and identifying areas worthy of more conversation. Depending on the design of the survey, engagement surveys are useful for capturing how employees feel about benefits, compensation programs and the like.

Engagement surveys fall short in two areas. The first is in capturing opinions about leadership. Our recommendation is that if you use an engagement survey, delete all of the questions having to do with  satisfaction with the supervisor and opinions about top leadership and use a valid, competency-based 360 instrument instead. The standard questions in an engagement survey dealing with leadership fall more into the popularity contest category. They’re more likely to create defensiveness in supervisors who do not score well and a false high for those who do. It’s better to use a valid 360 (such as those offered by The Center for Creative Leadership) tied to specific competencies that not only give leaders more accurate feedback but also show them a path to improvement.

The second area where engagement surveys miss the boat is in really capturing what’s going on in a culture. You can’t capture that by using pre-defined, standardized, one-size-fits-all questions because every organizational culture is unique. Each and every organizational culture has a unique language, a unique set of values and a unique world-view created by the complex dynamics of history, leadership and the myriad differences in the people who work there.

This failure is most clearly demonstrated in those “great-place-to-work” surveys. There are always several companies who make the list that everyone knows are massively dysfunctional organizations operating behind a veneer of excellent compensation, benefits and work-life programs that are over-emphasized in such surveys. Beneath the programs and the cheery internal marketing you will often find people who feel entitled rather than engaged, protective of position and perks and who can hide their astonishing lack of real productivity in the nooks and crannies of what is usually a bloated organization. The primary interest of the employee is to keep what they have rather than produce what they could, a strategy they’ve adopted because well, if you can’t find real fulfillment on the job, you might as well get what you can while you’re there.

The only way you can approach the truth about a culture is to reverse the process used in engagement surveys. Instead of defining questions and categories in advance, you use one single question to spark a conversation:

“Tell me what it’s like to work here.”

This is the essence of what we call a Culture Study. Instead of imposing a consultant’s world-view on the people of the organization, you focus on learning how they perceive the world, in their own language. That single question begins a conversation, and in the natural course of the conversation, the consultant will ask clarifying questions, paraphrase what the employee said and use simple active listening to try to fully understand how this individual experiences the workplace. The process of a Culture Study removes the fundamental bias of human communication: “You mean what I think you mean.”

The consultant therefore becomes a cultural anthropologist rather than a high-level file clerk. The work of a Culture Study comes after the conversations, where the consultant pores through the texts of many conversations to identify the real cultural norms, the pain points and the many truths that are often left unsaid. This produces a summary that is shared with everyone in the organization, an act that has a immediate and positive effect on the culture: conversation topics that were previously taboo are now problems an organization can face and solve. The whispered conversations in hallways and behind closed doors are no longer necessary; the fear attached to saying the unsayable has been abolished. The real issues can now be addressed instead of buried under the usual b. s.

Needless to say, a Culture Study involves several implementation challenges. The first and most critical is that top leadership has to fully commit to the process: they have to allow the truth to come out. This requirement usually disqualifies most organizations, as top leadership is too often filled with self-protective people more interested in advancing their careers than advancing the organization. The leaders have to commit to not using their power to stop the process—something that is very difficult for those people who enjoy leadership because of its power to control rather than its power to inspire. There have been  times when we have had to stop the Culture Study process before it begins because we sense in leadership an unstated unwillingness to tell and face the truth.

The second challenge involves participation in the interviews. For smaller organizations (250 and under), this is easy: everyone participates. When an organization moves beyond that size, you have to identify a sample—and the worst thing you can do is allow leadership to define that sample, which would bias your results before you start. The proper way to go about it is to generate a random sample of people in the organization, eliminating all bias relating to position, gender, race and other demographics. From a cultural standpoint, everyone in an organization participates in the culture, so if you want a real look at what’s going on, you need a truly representative sample that is not contaminated by favoritism.

Combining a Culture Study with an engagement survey can give you both the mass data you need to manage programs and the unfiltered honesty of the people who make up your culture. Properly facilitated, the process can uncover hidden problems that may be significant obstacles to organizational progress. However, a Culture Study is not for the faint of heart: it will uncover things that many organizations would rather sweep under the rug. On the upside, a Culture Study clearly communicates that every individual matters and that they have the responsibility to participate in the improvement of the organization. That’s real engagement.

In our third installment, we’ll talk about what individual leaders can do to ensure engagement within their sphere of influence.

Photo Credit: © Sarasta | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

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Despite various paradigm shifts and stunning advances in technology and communication, the dominant pattern of modern life has not changed much in the last fifty years: go-to-school-get-a-job-get-married-settle-down-raise-a-family-get-a-watch-retire. If you are one of the unfortunate souls who were not born into streams of inherited wealth, you have probably followed all or part of this pattern, depending on how far you’ve advanced in the aging process.

However, it is clear that the pattern is unraveling. Marriage is not the sacred institution it once was, and if you’re not heterosexual, it is not an option in most places. Having children is no longer an automatic choice for growing numbers of women; I once worked in a department with nine other women, all but one over thirty, all but one childless and the rest with no plans or even thoughts of either getting married or raising kids. The get-a-watch concept is fading fast, as corporations switch their propaganda from “job security” to “job opportunity,” meaning that any loyalty you have to a company had better be of the flexible variety. Retirement itself is undergoing flux, as Social Security looks iffy and our faith in the ability to the stock market to grow our 401(k)’s remains under assault.

But the go-to-school-get-a-job part of the pattern is still holding firm. There are a few artistic types who manage to avoid it, and few entrepreneurs who have parlayed their talents and marketing savvy into relative independence, but for most of us slobs, the menu is pretty much limited to a list of possible occupations. Some opt out of going to college and have to select from a shorter menu. Those who go to college may begin with more choices (depending on the job market at the time), but those choices are eventually reduced by the push to specialize in a single body of knowledge. People see jobs as a necessary evil, a sign that you have matured and are willing to accept reality for what it is—a daily routine of commute, work and commute again. They are things we “have to get,” not necessarily things we “want to get.”

That last statement would appear to contradict polls and engagement surveys showing that a majority of Americans are at least somewhat satisfied with their jobs (not so much with their particular employers, though). I think this is more of a matter of making lemonade out of lemons. My experience tells me that people often like what they do but they despise their boneheaded leaders or the general working environment. But there is more to it than that, something elusive that cannot be captured in polling numbers or engagement surveys.

Having listened to thousands of people in all kinds of organizations over the years, I can say unequivocally that tune I hear most often in the background is Peggy Lee singing “Is That All There Is?” This does not show up in polls on job satisfaction because people have a hard time telling the truth about their current status. We almost always say things are going better than they are because we don’t want anyone to think we’ve made a mistake. This applies to everything from buying a new car (it’s always “I love this car” even if it is a piece of junk) to choosing a job. Since people learn to put on a happy face for their employers to avoid being labeled complainers or to prevent having their career paths filled with landmines planted by resentful bosses, any survey of the workplace is but a superficial indication of what is really going on. The reality is more along the lines of the common response, “It’s okay—for a job.”

The employment scene is like a bad supermarket. There seem to be plenty of items to choose from, but none of them really satisfy the craving. Many of the items are attractively packaged, but when we open the packaging, the contents are either flat or spoiled. We stand in the aisles like Mary Tyler Moore during the opening credits of her 70’s sitcom trying to decide if we really want the thing in our hands and then shrug our shoulders and fling it into the cart. After all, we have to eat something.

Among the selections available to us, the default choice for most people is some kind of job in a corporation, particularly if your overriding “need” is to make money. Landing a decent job for a name company is considered a respectable choice; and when we get the offer, we approach our prospective employment with a combination of relief and excitement about our now apparently rosy future.

Unfortunately, once you get past the corporate packaging that advertises a constantly expanding career path and the apparently attractive job offer, you have to go to work at the place. The reality of the workplace is very different from what most people expect. Prospective employers don’t tell you that it is impossible to get anything done in their corporation because of a power struggle on the executive level. Recruiters don’t tell you that your boss is an arrogant jerk who always has to be right and that if you have the gall to suggest new ways of doing things, they will banish you to an outer cubicle to clean up an obsolete database. Sometimes an old hand will see your excited face as you enter the workplace with your sugar plum visions, pull you aside and whisper, “Wait until you’ve been here about six months.” That’s usually how long it takes for people to realize that their chances of making a real difference in an organization are virtually nil.

This is not to imply that all corporations are this way and that everyone working in a corporation is a self-serving, self-righteous incompetent. If that were the case, corporations would not have produced the successes they have produced. Most organizations survive and sometimes thrive because of a small core of decent, dedicated human beings with a strong orientation towards cooperation who somehow work through all the crap strewn in their paths like Andy Dufresne crawling through the sewer to freedom in The Shawshank Redemption. These people are both fortunate and determined enough to find both meaning and achievement in their work. Though some are in positions of leadership, most tend to work quietly in the background, translating the gibberish emanating from above or from “corporate” into workable solutions that satisfy customers and earn profits for the enterprise. They are the master lemonade makers, living proof that spending one’s life in an organization can be a rewarding, personally satisfying experience.

So while it is possible to retire with more than a gold watch but also with one’s dignity, there is more than enough pain in any organization to make job satisfaction a very difficult thing to achieve. One could read the polls and feel reassured that America is a happy place full of happy workers who cannot wait for Monday morning. If that were true, why are stress management classes in such great demand? Why do so many Americans seem to be on medication? Survey results do not capture the overwhelming dissatisfaction with the greater predicament of an employment system that seems to offer us a limited set of less-than-desirable options. The results measure what we have learned to cope with, learned to accept as normal and our ability to give up when faced with what we perceive to be the inevitable. As is usually the case, surveys fail to capture what is really going on.

What’s really going on is that our organizations are filled with people who don’t really want to be there and would much rather be doing something else.

This is something that every organizational development consultant or HR professional has to face if they are to make a real difference for the organization that hired them. In future posts, I’ll offer some ideas for how to turn that combination of unwillingness and latent energy into something positive and meaningful.

Photo Credit: © Cpurdy | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos