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.