5 Tips for a Successful Engagement Survey

September 4, 2013 Darcy Jacobsen


Employee engagement survey responseAccording to the Aberdeen Group, 70% of global organizations have some sort of employee engagement strategy. Yet 68% of us do not have any formal process to measure and manage employee engagement. (This is probably not surprising, considering many companies are still looking for the right way to measure and manage employee engagement.) For most, this process begins with an engagement survey.

However, too many companies never get past this first step. The engagement survey becomes a sort of Groundhog Day scenario, where every year is often just a repeat of the previous. A flurry to design and execute a survey that sucks all the oxygen out of the organization, followed by several quarters of wondering what to do, and then maybe a month of last minute activity before it all begins again.

The truth is, many organizations don’t know exactly what to do with engagement survey data they’ve collected. For them, the exercise becomes an end unto itself. This is usually because their surveys are not designed in ways that yield actionable results or fit into a larger engagement strategy.

Whether you are just embarking on your engagement survey or sitting staring at a packet of engagement results, consider the following tips to make your initiative both more meaningful and more actionable:

1.  Articulate your Goals

Why are you conducting a survey? The obvious answer is “We want to see what our engagement is” or “We want to improve engagement.” Unfortunately, many companies stop there. Measuring engagement is not enough. You need to decide in advance what you want to do with the data you are collecting. Are you trying to benchmark against your industry? Are you trying to unpack a problem you’ve already detected? Are you trying to gain feedback from employees? Are you trying to increase opportunities for improvement? Get input and buy-in from all areas and levels of the organization before you put a single question on the survey form. This will help you to determine how you will measure your success or failure in a qualitative way.

2. Build a Better Mousetrap

For most organizations, a lot of time goes into survey design—and most of that time is wasted. If at the end of the survey you find yourself with a lot of data points but are wondering what exactly to do with them, then the chances are you have too many lagging questions vs. leading questions. Consider fewer lagging questions that judge your accomplishments (I enjoy my work.), and more leading questions that hone in on the behavior that drove your success (My manager takes time to plan my development.)  The second metric gives you a built in goal, where the first does not identify any particular action that can move the needle.

Additionally, understand the difference between satisfaction and engagement: satisfaction predicts turnover and absenteeism, and engagement predicts performance and discretionary effort. Both are good to measure, but be sure you understand which questions are measuring which condition.

3.  Don’t Work in a Vacuum

A survey alone doesn’t make an engagement strategy. Your survey should be a part of a larger culture of engagement. Survey results must be meaningful to managers and executives or they will not drive behavioral change. Furthermore, they must be trustworthy in the eyes of all employees—which means two things:

  1. You should include employees in every level of the process.
  2. You must have executive sponsorship to increase confidence that change will be supported.

Once you have your results, communicate them back to the company along with the plan you’ve formulated in reaction to them. You might be asking “but what if our results are awful?”… All the more reason to share the results and your plan to address the problems. If the survey shows several areas of concern, you can be sure everyone already realizes it.

4. Surveys are Only a Starting Point

Surveys are not the end goal. They are merely a tool to begin a conversation with your employees, or to frame that conversation for managers and executives. In our 2012 webinar, “Your Engagement Survey is Done, Now What?” Blessing White’s Mary Ann Maserech shared four types of manager-employee conversations that might follow an engagement survey:

  • Satisfaction: work that excites, meaning, job fit
  • Contribution: top priorities now, resources, challenges, connection to strategy
  • Talent Utilization: opportunities to use strengths, growth
  • Working together: ideas, challenges, do more, do less

5. Take Action or Don’t Bother

Putting together a survey like this and pushing it through an organization takes a huge effort. It is little wonder that so many HR groups just stop there. But here’s another tip from our webinar: you should be expending  at least two times that effort on taking action on survey results. If you can’t, experts say, don’t even conduct a survey—because employees who are not surveyed at all are more engaged than those whose companies survey them but take no action. In a recent post, Gallup suggests the following list of actions to follow up on your survey results:

  1. Introduce the action-planning session and state its purpose. This will help employees understand what engagement is, why the survey was conducted and what it measures, what the survey items mean to them and to their workgroup, and why action planning is a vital step in improving employee engagement.
  2. Distribute and explain the survey results.
  3. Discuss what those results mean for the workgroup, item by item.
  4. Select two or three key items to work on over the next 12 months.
  5. Brainstorm follow-up actions and complete a plan for improvement.
  6. Follow up regularly on the plan, and on how people are feeling about the team’s progress toward meeting its goals.

An engagement survey is the first logical step in a strategy to improve employee engagement, but don’t let it become your entire strategy. With a little bit of planning and a little more follow-through, you can make a frustrating and puzzling process into something that will truly drive results for your organization.

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