The engagement survey is a key analysis tool to understand and improve employee engagement. But using it in the wrong way can have counter-productive results.

Many organisations do engagement surveys. Some do them annually, others bi-annually. Some do pulse surveys in between. Originally conceived as “employee satisfaction” surveys, most organisations now attempt to measure a broader set of factors that help employees be effective and productive (and yes happy as well). This is an improvement in the years since the practice became common. A less fruitful change however, is that the vernacular has also changed. Now organisations speak of their employee engagement score. ‘So what?’ you might think. Well, the issue is the word ‘score’.

Looking deeper to discover the drivers of engagement

The problem is that focusing on the score implies that engagement is the game rather than a factor to winning the game. Organisations tend to set a KPI on the engagement score, but the survey doesn’t indicate performance – at least not the performance that the company really cares about. Using KPIs to emphasise the importance of engagement, while well intended, means managers focus on getting a good score, not on improving whatever drives that score. Even though organisations call their surveys names like ‘MyVoice’ or ‘SpeakUp’, they unintentionally deprive themselves of getting real feedback about what’s going on in their organisations. They miss out on the opportunity to enhance one of the primary inputs to their success – the skills, energy, and effort of their people. As a result, organisations usually get really rich insights in the first year of the survey, when the data is collected free of KPIs. People are free to be honest and speak their mind. Analysing the data helps organisations understand the various factors that impact the motivation and effectiveness of their employees. Problem areas can be identified and improved.

After the first survey, things often go pear shaped. A KPI gets set on the engagement score – with all the associate consequences. But managers don’t get the necessary support to understand the underlying issues and make improvements. To make matters worse, some organisations aim to meet or exceed the ‘high performance norm’ and set KPIs accordingly. Every manager has learnt that KPIs need to get cascaded down the organisation, so team members get the same target which means their own bonus becomes dependent on the score. As Daniel Pink has showed us, humans like being rewarded, which means employees will likely answer the survey more positively in the second year – regardless of whether or not things have actually improved. In a short time, KPIs can significantly diminish the validity of an engagement survey that was originally intended to get fresh and honest insights into how the organisation can support employees to be at their best.

“Focusing on the score implies that engagement is the game rather than a factor to winning the game”

I’d like to think that helping managers understand which activities or behaviours they need to focus on to improve performance is a much better way of improving engagement. KPIs should remain set on business results, client feedback or other measures of whether the company is winning the “real” game. The engagement survey can then return to its original role – as a useful analysis tool to understand and improve employee performance. If you’d like to know more about how your engagement survey can give you real insights into what your leaders can do to improve performance, please get in touch.

And watch out for my next blog, about the relevance of engagement surveys for Generation Y.

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For advice on improving employee engagement download our new report Engaging hearts & minds: Preparing for a changing world.

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About Contributor

Anita is a Senior Client Partner and Head of Korn Ferry’s Assessment & Succession practice, Australasia. She works directly with CEOs, CEO successors and top teams and also advises organisations on broader leadership development and talent strategies. Anita’s areas of passion include CEO and senior leadership development and the development of talent in Asia.

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