Are you asking employee engagement questions because you really want to change things? Or is it just a trick?

You know what I like about Halloween? There are three things. First, I like all the neighborhood children arriving at my front door with great costumes and big smiles. Second, I like an excuse to buy enough chocolate that we don’t run out and I get the leftovers. Lastly (here’s the cheesy tie-in to my actual message) I like the fact that the kids and I have an explicit matching of expectations. I’m expected to have candy on offer — or suffer the consequences if I don’t!

What does all that have to do with employee engagement surveys? Well, when employees take precious time away from whatever current deadline is looming to provide feedback in a survey, they have a (reasonable) expectation that their feedback will be heard. They expect that things that aren’t great will be addressed. So the matching expectation from leadership should be that they’ll make a genuine effort to address those things. But these days, there is actually a good degree of cynicism among employees because they’ve come to realize that too frequently this is all a charade, a “check the box” exercise (deployed the survey… check, analyzed the results… check, read the report… check, sent managers their report with a gazillion data points and told them to improve their scores… check, crossed engagement off the list for another year… check. Great job team!) Yeah… not so much. In 2015 that’s a recipe for disengagement and all round cynicism that this “soft stuff” is a waste of time. If corporate America worked under Halloween rules, your employees would be TP-ing your office and tipping over your inbox.

So what’s a stressed out leadership team supposed to do? It’s really not that hard:

  1. Commit to taking all this seriously, just like your annual operating budget.
  2. Get up to speed with the new world of engagement. It’s something that happens every day, not something you do occasionally. Listen to employee feedback continuously. It’s just like process improvement — nobody thinks that’s something you do just once a year!
  3. Listen in multiple ways. Surveys are still a core part of the process, especially for quantitative analysis, but interviews, focus groups, one-on-one conversations, online forums and social media can all play a part too.
  4. Don’t treat everybody the same. While all roles in your organization are important, some are more so because they are critical to your strategic success. You need to ensure that you focus on engaging the people filling those critical roles.
  5. Finally, move quickly from gathering and assessing feedback to a taking a very small number of focused actions (think Lean Agile principles applied to engagement). Pick one or two top priority actions, improvements you can make that you know from your survey results will be drivers of engagement (and if you don’t know what these things are you’re either not asking the right questions or not doing the right analysis!!). Pick your action plan, execute it, and then ask that same engagement question a few weeks after your action plan has percolated throughout your organization. If your scores are improving, either keep going on that plan, or move on to the next priority action. If not, figure out what isn’t working by asking employees about it and course-correct. It’s all about taking quick actions that employees can see, and getting higher performance as a result — or at least failing fast and retrying until you do.

Effective employee engagement doesn’t need to be some big program that’s just another burden on everyone. It’s much more effective when it becomes part of the natural rhythm of your business. When leaders, managers and employees all recognize that it’s part of the everyday way of working and understand that everyone shares responsibility for engagement, it actually becomes something useful that really does drive organization performance in a good way. So forget the annual survey and the associated dog and pony show! Just set some shared expectations with your employees that you’re serious about engagement and they should be too.

Now where’s that leftover chocolate?


About the author:

Marcus Scott, PeopleFirm
A founding partner of PeopleFirm, Marcus has 20 years of experience as a business thought leader. Both as a consultant and as an internal employee, he has helped a variety of corporations with their business and people strategies, external and internal marketing programs, and new product and service development. Marcus has maintained a passion and respect for the human element of organizations throughout his career. He is equally adept at both highly strategic projects that define how companies compete in the labor market and the day-to-day details of executing an employee survey program. His focus (some might call it an obsession) on structure and patterns enables him to convey complex information in easily understandable terms that can be translated into clear insight for executives, managers, and front-line employees alike. His current areas of focus include people strategy and driving high performance through employee engagement.

PeopleFirm is a management and HR consulting firm dedicated to helping you achieve that ultimate win-win: inspired people driving inspiring performance. We focus on effective tools, measurable outcomes, real results, and getting your people out of their seats and engaged in your company’s growth. We use people strategy, talent management, organizational performance, and change management, to help you partner with your people to build an organization that excels in today’s new world of work. People are your last competitive frontier. Make them count.

Your people = your success.