These Questions Are Ruining Your Employee Engagement Survey

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May 12, 2021

The purpose of an employee engagement survey is to increase employee engagement. The purpose is not to idly measure, satisfy executives’ curiosity, or establish a baseline. If an employee engagement survey isn’t designed to help us increase engagement, we risk violating employees’ trust and actually decreasing their engagement.

Think of it like this: People take time out of their day to answer a survey. They do so with the expectation and an implied promise that something will improve. But if months go by with no significant action taken, they’re going to feel like the company broke that implied promise.

Most companies don’t start their survey with the intention of not taking action on the results. But that’s the typical outcome because the survey questions most companies ask are too vague or lack a specific path to action.

More than 10,000 HR executives have taken the online test How Good Is Your Employee Engagement Survey? One of the questions asks, “Do your survey questions have a clear path to action (i.e., if you get a low score on a question, you know exactly how to fix the issue).”

Based on just-released data, we know that:

  • 28% of HR executives answer: “Yes, every single question has a clear path to action (i.e., we never struggle to figure out what actions to take).” 
  • 26% say: “No, our questions are pretty vague.”
  • 46% answer: “Some of our questions have a clear path to action, but we struggle to figure out how to fix other questions.”

Now, most people will assert that their questions don’t suffer from this problem. But let’s look at some popular survey questions:

  • I have confidence in this company’s leaders.
  • I trust my direct leader.
  • I like my direct leader.
  • I have great friends at work.
  • My boss cares about me as a person.

Those questions seem innocuous enough until we ask, “What specific actions would we take if we received a low score on those questions?”

Imagine you get low scores on the question, “I have confidence in this company’s leaders.” What specific actions will you take to ameliorate this issue? Should leaders communicate more? Or less? Should leaders communicate with a more directive and assertive style? Or take a more diplomatic approach?

The simple fact is that you don’t know. Any or all of those strategies might work, but they might also be the exact wrong approach for your unique group of employees. And the reason that you have no idea which would be the correct approach is that the survey question did not have a path to action.

The vast majority of questions containing words like “trust,” “confidence,” “satisfied,” and “care” are so vague and lacking a path to action as to be utterly useless. 

By contrast, take the question, “I understand the rationale behind the company’s business decisions (for example, the economy, business, and competitors).” Research shows that this question is one of the top statistical drivers of employee engagement. It has a very clear path to action. Should you discover that your employees do not understand the rationale behind the company’s business decisions, you now know exactly what to do. A quick bit of training or teaching employees the rationale behind your major business decisions and, voila, you’ve just solved this problem and increased your employees’ engagement.

You should apply a simple test to every single question on your survey. Read each question and then ask yourself, “What specific actions would we take if we received a low score on those questions?” If you find that you either don’t know what you would do or you’ve got many equally plausible ideas, then you need to fix that question.

Let’s take the question, “I trust my direct leader.” If you got a low score on that question, what specific actions would you take to correct the problem? Team-building could work, but only for employees with a high affiliation drive. Otherwise, contrived team-building will damage the leader’s credibility. Leaders could employ a more participative style, but that will fail with employees that are negative, withdrawn, or highly introverted.

You can see the problem here; there are so many possible actions, each with plusses and potentially significant minuses, that it’s impossible to know the correct choice. So you would either need to rewrite the question or eliminate it entirely.

If you don’t know what specific actions you should take to address every question on your survey, you won’t see real improvement. And without a path to improvement, there’s not much point in conducting a survey.

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