Leaders Apply Engagement Surveys with Caution and Care

Engagement is the holy grail of productivity.

We read articles and books and blog posts about the value of engaged employees and how much more productive they are. We hang on those Gallup statistics:

  • 34% of employees are engaged in their work
  • 13% of employees are actively disengaged in their work
  • The remaining 53% are not engaged in their work

Given these results, if we can figure out what aspects of our organization contribute to high engagement and to low engagement, we’ll be good, right? So to do this, head offices and HR departments spend a lot of time and money on employee surveys. Then, they come up with action plans to implement how to best to serve the employees. They end up with mixed results.

I have some anecdotal observations:

  • Many times in organizations, survey results are all over the map without many clear insights. Except one—communication is lacking from upper management. 
  • Then, in an attempt to “fix” the problem, communications professionals send out newsletters, board postings, and/or enterprise-wide emails. These solutions are easy to implement and systematize. They also come with the added benefit of having something tangible to prove more communication is taking place.
  • When you talk to employees, though, these so-called solutions aren’t what the employees really meant. What they really meant was that their boss is an inadequate communicator. Their boss doesn’t communicate with enough quality or enough quantity. But fixing this issue requires a commitment to leadership development all the way up and down the chain, focusing on basic communication skills and systems.

This is basic. If you are reading this, and any of this sounds familiar, picture this:

  • What if upper management did more face-to-face communication with people-leaders and managers who are closer to the action?
  • And what if the managers nailed a system of one-on-one meetings with individual contributors?
  • In those meetings, what if managers and their bosses were always conscious of being truly present, mindful, and attentive in conversations?
  • Finally, what if all communication at all levels was carried out with mutual respect and consideration?

Here’s my guess: instead of various committee meetings and actions plans, the above four steps would create an organization where communication stopped being the number one gripe. 

There’s another danger with engagement surveys.

When employees suspect there are efforts to pump up the scores on the surveys, they tend to disengage even more. 

I did my master’s degree work on this topic, from my previous life: Why do kids quit band?

In 1996 I had a lot of students dropping my program. So, I wanted to single out the factors I could adjust in order to maximize enrollment. I reviewed every peer-reviewed research document available on the topic. The simple, bottom-line result: the most significant factor in students’ decision to stay in a voluntary musical organization was the approach of the director.

With these results in mind, I went from tinkering around the edges to adjusting my approach. Enrollment grew. It seems so obvious and basic. Nowadays, I spend time in organizations with 120 to 65,000 employees, and I see the same thing—leaders looking for OTHER factors to fix to increase engagement.

But when they dig deeper, what they’ll find is basic. Leaders who connect, are clear, kind, present, and commit to communication get results.

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