Actively disengaged

I see Neil Morrison has been having another crack at the employee engagement industry. And Amen to that. This topic is a great example of how reading opinion pieces like his and getting involved in social media discussion has shaped, challenged and ultimately influenced my thinking over the last few years.

As a result, I confess I have become increasingly cynical and suspicious of engagement surveys and the information they provide, and I talk from experience of using 3 or 4 of the biggest ones on the market in the different organizations I have worked for.

15 years ago they became the latest tool in HR’s armoury. Sure, staff surveys had been around for a while but measuring engagement was a new development. This was going to fix everything and we all jumped eagerly onto the bandwagon. But what happened?

Engagement surveys became an exercise in marketing spin and shit kicking, and gave us the opportunity to point fingers and blame everything and anything else other than ourselves as managers.  There was always another department with results worse than your own.

All those pleading “please complete the survey and have your say” emails/roadshows/posters that we churned out of HR. And the staff told us

  • we aren’t paid enough
  • there is not enough training
  • our benefits aren’t flexible enough
  • not enough social events
  • no follow through on performance management
  • no career progression
  • our culture is rubbish because you took the biscuits away etc etc.

While that was fine ten years ago because most organizations had little or no self awareness and the mushroom effect was still very evident, the world has moved on. But the surveys still ask the same questions year in and year out. Why? Because they’ve made an industry out of it and introduced the element of competition.

Whether it’s winning one of those best employer awards because your engagement is the highest, or just benchmarking against anonymous industry competitors, improving the engagement score has become the holy grail for many a leadership team and the hook these surveys use to keep you, ahem, engaged.

Not enough winners? No problem, we will have a category for each industry! And you can aspire to be the best of the worst if your culture really is that bad.

And part of me suspects the actual engagement score, usually based on only a few questions not the whole survey because it’s a really serious science (cough), is kept artificially low and hard to achieve so the clients keep coming back year after year on the off chance the score will dramatically improve. It never does, certainly not in the larger organizations. This is my experience at any rate.

It is absolutely important for staff to have a voice, to feel listened to and that their opinion matters. It is important to treat and manage staff in the right way with honesty, authenticity and transparency.

But, and this is a big but, I struggle with the survey mentality because I am also of the view that we get paid to turn up at work every day and perform to the best of our abilities. And if we don’t like it we have a choice. Life is too short to work for companies and/or managers that don’t lead, inspire or motivate or value your contribution. And if companies don’t do this, now and into the future, they won’t survive. And don’t deserve to.

I have often given very honest and constructive feedback and comments in surveys, then hated myself for being negative and passively aggressive, and everyone else when the results come out and don’t accurately reflect the big issues that most were too spineless or oblivious to point out. Rather than being a win/win, I find the whole thing to be a lose/lose. No one comes out of the process feeling better.

Is this your reality?

  • trying desperately to get more than 50% of your staff complete the annual survey
  • then waiting weeks for massive files of data that you break down by department, office, team etc so you can analyze it to death and spend months running workshops and developing action plans because you don’t know what the results really mean
  • watching frustrated as nothing changes because by the time somebody gets to make a decision everyone has forgotten what the issue is and, despite all HR’s hard work, the engagement score has barely moved

If that sounds like your world, then it’s time to ditch the survey and start again. Someone in your organisation needs to put their hand up and say “this isn’t working, it isn’t making a difference.” And that means YOU in HR. Be brave, challenge the status quo and be that difference.

There are newer survey tools out there that have more of an individual focus and give you instant and simple results and clear actions. Seek them out. Don’t let your managers hide behind collective data and action plans that will quickly be fudged and forgotten.

My challenge to you for the rest of 2015 is to completely remove the words “staff engagement” from your professional vocabulary and thinking. Just get on with doing the stuff that really matters. Go on, try it. It won’t hurt a bit.

14 thoughts on “Actively disengaged

  1. I find myself disagreeing and agreeing with what you’re saying – perhaps I’d be ambivalent on your engagement survey?

    Although I don’t believe that engagement surveys are the bee all and end all, I think that by saying the engagement survey doesn’t work, we’re ignoring the root cause – that companies don’t genuinely give a toss about their people. It’s just easier to blame the engagement survey process for not doing anything about it.

    It’s what you do with the survey that really matters. And I think this is where it falls over. Where managers have to achieve a number, where it’s data collection and nothing is done with that data. We’ve got this process and nothing is ever done aside from the process. Funny that it doesn’t actually work..

    I actually think they’re a helpful way of measuring that you’re on the right track and a great tool for employer branding. But, you’re right, the action planning and palaver doesn’t really work.

    Is this the failure of engagement surveys or the people using them?

    • Don’t get me wrong, I think you can get some valuable info back. It’s the whole engagement score concept that leaves me cold and devalues the process in my view. But yes, I take your point that it is all too easy to blame the tool rather that how it is used.

  2. Thought provoking blog, thanks Richard. I would tend to agree that it’s the ‘not doing anything with the info’ bit that is where engagement surveys fail us.

    Let’s be honest, when there are ‘day jobs’ to be done and additional ‘stuff’ is added to the list, to help up the engagement score/improve the culture, I can understand why limited progress is made.

    My question is how do we help people with busy day jobs to really <> to do the stuff that really matters? Imagine a workplace where everyone felt encouraged, valued, like they are round pegs in round holes.

      • I think Mel you start asking some very hard questions about whether everything you do matters and adds value, or whether you do stuff that no one would miss if it wasn’t there? Always ask “why and how” we do things.

  3. Great post. I agree with Amanda though. If you just run a regular survey and call that your staff engagement, it’s going to fall flat. The survey isn’t the engagement part – it’s just an indicator of how you’re doing with the actual important stuff.

  4. That’s not where I was coming from (I’m new to sharing my [written] thoughts, so excuse my clumsiness as I learn – I’m working my way towards starting a blog of my own).

    I think the work we/L&D/HR/P&C do certainly would be missed if I/we weren’t there. Articulating my ‘why’ is still a work in progress. Essentially, it is to help and support individuals, teams and organisations become the very best they can be. My ‘how’ is by giving tools to either remind or people discover their strengths. Research shows that people who use their strengths are more engaged, productive and have a better quality of life.

    I think that on the whole, managers don’t not want to help impact their organisational culture. I think it’s more often a case of our world getting busier, louder and more demanding and it’s the stuff that shouts loudest that gets heard/acted on. In my experience, it seems that often it’s the HR/P&C initiatives that get bumped because it/they don’t appear to impact on ‘production of widgets’.

    When someone understands outcome/s of, say action planning, are they more committed to making them work? If so, how do we help managers/people understand the positive outcome/s of action planning [and not just to move the survey score]?

  5. Helen – I don’t disagree with that. Just not sure you can realistically measure “engagement”

    Mel – I agree the point about focusing on people’s strengths. All too often we obsess about what people can’t do after we’ve put them in a role they aren’t equipped for instead of focusing on and building strengths.

    Also you make a good point about action planning. What is the point of an action plan if there isn’t a long term vision? We often seem to action plan to solve a short-term problem, not make a long term change.

    • Hi Simon – I’m not really a fan of anything that purports to “measure” staff engagement. I don’t know enough about NPS beyond the client satisfaction measure to be honest. Have you seen it used?

      • We’re starting to use it at my company as a e(mployee)NPS to capture staff ‘feedback’ – rather than ‘engagement’. 1 Question: “How likely are you to recommend to a friend or colleague?” 1-10 and a comment box. Everyone will get asked for feedback once a quarter. I think it’s been left suitably open to interpretation to whys and whos and what’s meant by recommendation to get people thinking a bit.

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