Reviewing the critics: why does employee engagement stir up such emotion?

Engagement surveys elicit strong emotions. A recent article in the FT questions the purpose and credibility of engagement surveys, based on the first-hand experience of journalist Pilita Clark.


The article itself is reasonably balanced and points to some big queries about the ‘right’ way to measure engagement – 15 minutes for a survey is far too long, before we even discuss the questions themselves. However, the many comments which follow the article display extremely strong antipathy towards surveys and indeed towards the theory of employee engagement as a whole.


To paraphrase some of the comments around their effectiveness, confidentiality and purpose:


It’s cheaper and more effective to talk to people, trust them, and give them confidence that they are supported

I am one of the many who are wondering how anonymous these surveys really are.

I think these surveys are a combination of surveillance and propaganda.

Another example of the insidiously nasty HR bandwagon.


For we insiders of the ‘engagement business’ there is no doubt that some concerns are legitimate. There are many poor, unfocused and lengthy surveys out there, and there are many companies who do very little with the data they gather. There are also undoubtedly some bad behaviours which accompany surveys, and more than a few organisations that still think an engagement survey itself can improve things, rather than the behaviours demonstrated by managers and leaders.


However, there are also many examples of surveys and well-planned engagement programmes that do a great job of shining a light on both great managers and poor managers and the very real impact they can have on the lives of their people. The comment from Enterprise Management Group’s Jim Smith below the FT article pinpoints the heart of the issue: working with senior leadership and management.


Managers make a huge difference to the people in their teams both positively and negatively. Ironically the behaviours of some of the worst managers get hidden by two things. The first is that employees tend to be far more accepting of poor behaviour at a local level than they are of senior leaders. (Most ‘worst performing teams’ as measured by engagement still tend to have fairly high manager scores.) The second is that many employees don’t always have an option to leave and fairly high retention levels hide the reality of the situation. (Again most ‘worst performing teams’ still tend to still have fairly high loyalty.)


One significant difference we see is that the worst performing teams tend to have a very low view of their leadership. In short, weak managers make leaders look terrible regardless of the quality of communications and strategies that come from these leaders. This often makes leaders sit up and listen!


We know that poor managers have a big negative impact. They can make employees’ lives miserable both at work and at home, causing lasting damage to mental health and physical well-being as well as causing commercial damage to their organisation.


As a result, our approach to engagement is the exact opposite to a tick-box, one-size-fits all exercise. Instead, it’s about creating an environment where employees want to give more because their jobs are at least fulfilling if not actually exciting. (And for sure there are multiple additional factors – like security, purpose, values and so on.) Outcomes like business performance, customer focus, innovation and loyalty to the organisation then automatically follow. The best leaders know this instinctively and lead their organisations down these paths in a style authentic to them.


Our experience of this approach shows that there is indeed a clear place for surveys in helping to highlight both great managers and poor managers and the very real impact they can have on the lives of their people. And it also shows that it is too simplistic to say “just talk to us” – for many employees there is no other confidential way to pass on the type of objective feedback on their managers than via their employee survey. What’s more, many organisations simply don’t have the capacity, structure or skill to create an open-minded, lay-everything-bare culture.


But – and this is a big but – we have to do far more to improve processes, communicate the purpose and hammer home the reality, particularly when it comes to confidentiality. Many organisations are collectively bored with survey action planning, while employees are more cynical than ever about the way their data is handled.


(If it helps to have some anecdotal reassurance, I recently met up with three old colleagues. We worked together on some of the first of the ‘new wave’ engagement surveys nearly 20 years ago and between us have since have worked in six different survey organisations, being personally involved with in excess of a hundred different clients, many hundreds of individual surveys and (genuinely) many millions of individual responses. Not a single one of us has ever been involved with or been aware of any breach of individual confidentiality whatsoever around employee engagement surveys.)


We are seeing a migration – albeit a slow one – from traditional annual employee surveys towards something more agile, technologically flexible, and strategically relevant, as organisations begin to understand the correlation between business success and the individual employee. But many of the original concerns employees have highlighted above will continue to exist unless we address the role that leadership plays in creating the right environment for engagement strategies, however large or small they may be, to flourish.


Nick Thompson
ENGAGE Practice Head