Are you Relying too Heavily on Employee Engagement Surveys?

Are you Relying too Heavily on Employee Engagement Surveys?

Around the world, there’s growing discontent about the ineffectiveness of employee engagement surveys.  Over the last fifteen years, employee engagement levels have remained static, despite companies being focused on it more than ever.  According to Gallup, only 24% of Australians are engaged in their jobs, while another study found that in Australia we recorded the third-worst global employee engagement figures in 2015.

The question to ask is, if employee engagement programs are so effective, why are so many workers disgruntled?

When you ask people about what they dislike about employee engagement surveys common gripes include that they:

  • Are perceived as a ‘tick and flick’ tool to make the organisation appear as if they care (and please shareholders).
  • Have low employee response rates because past experience shows that nothing changes.
  • Have results sitting on a shelf gathering dust because leaders don’t know how to take action.
  • Ask the wrong questions.
  • Are ignored by leaders who aren’t prepared to make the changes required.
  • Are stuck in the past because HR wants to keep pulling out old data for comparison which has little impact on the future.
  • Are measured too infrequently.
  • Are undertaken internally which reduces employee response rates, for fear of being punished for telling the truth.

You don’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to work out that employee engagement has something to do with leaders.

A 2014 Towers Watson study found that only 44 per cent of Australian employees surveyed said their leaders were effective, compared to 52 per cent of their international counterparts.  Australian workers are also more critical of the leadership of their bosses.  What employees want is clear direction and leadership from their managers.

In 20 years of research, Great Places to Work Institute found that trust between managers and employees is the primary defining characteristic of the very best workplaces.  Employees are also more likely to trust leaders, if leaders are clear on their intent, perceived as being highly competent and create an environment where people can speak up and challenge leaders.

Despite all of this evidence, employee engagement surveys kind of skip over the reason why people are disengaged in the first place.  In other words, how much employees trust their managers, leadership and the organisation.  Instead, most employee engagement surveys are written from a false business assumption that people find work boring and need to be motivated to work.  Yet, science has been telling us for forty years that this is not true.  Humans perform best when they are intrinsically motivated – not extrinsically.  Most employee engagement surveys are created from a one-way management perspective that treats employees like tools of productivity, rather than human beings. Employees are quizzed on perceived transactional benefits or functional needs (eg: pay, rewards) rather than the emotional benefits of work.  Skewed to the rational side of business, the emotional benefits are often misinterpreted and misunderstood from the data.

A further issue is they use outdated analysis.  Typically, the results are created through either creating an average of all the measures or use old-fashioned regression analysis, which has been found to be highly ineffective.  Results tend to provide statistical significances that only uncover trivial differences of no importance or “statistical fairy tales….composed of cherry-picked engagement drivers.” This is one of the reasons results are not actionable or produce little positive impact.

Furthermore, leaders often choose to change structural measures because they are visible and concrete (ie: a restructure or new comfortable chairs). This provides short-term efficiencies that only address the symptoms of dysfunction, not the root cause. Years down the track, companies usually find themselves in the same place.

Another outcome of employee engagement activities is that leaders decide to throw more engagement activities at employees.  This will always backfire, if the organisation or leadership is mistrusted.  They will simply be viewed cynically as another attempt to force people to enjoy their work, without addressing the core issues at play.  This can result in employees expecting more rewards to do work at the same level.

Of course, the easiest option is that leaders choose not to do anything with the results because they don’t make much sense or they appear overwhelmingly difficult to fix. Unfortunately, ignoring them only reduces trust further, as employees feel like their opinions don’t matter.

The Missing Variable in Engagement Surveys

One of the first questions we ask ourselves when we meet a new person is “Can I trust them?

From an evolutionary perspective, it’s critical to our survival to know whether a person deserves our trust. In a business setting, relationships are everything. From the relationship employees have with customers, each other, leaders and the actual organisation itself.

When we first start working with a company or a new team, we quickly assess whether the team leader and our teammates can be trusted. This decision determines whether we will become fully productive and work above and beyond what is expected of us (ie: the common definition of employee engagement).

As Abraham Maslow taught in his Hierarchy of Needs, we can’t concern ourselves with higher goals until we have the necessities of life, including safety, belonging and meaning. If we don’t feel that, we’re more likely to be focusing our energies on survival rather than creation. We’re unable to commit and believe in the vision.

Ultimately, if the organisation and leaders have conveyed a message of security, good will and protection we will decide that it’s safe for us to go the extra mile. In the workplace, employees need confirmation that their fellow co-workers are looking out for them.  More importantly, workers need to feel connected to others and trust that their boss and their colleagues really care. At the same time, employees need to feel like the work they do matters, they’re making an impact and others appreciate their work. It’s once these three things have been taken care of that we can trust that the organisation and leaders will do the right thing by us that we can move to the next level and become emotionally engaged.  Trust is a precursor to emotional engagement.  It’s the missing variable in employee engagement surveys.

Safety + Meaning + Impact = TRUST = Employee Engagement

Safety + Meaning + Impact – TRUST = Disengaged Employees


When a person’s job role is ambiguous, a major change is occurring, the threat of job losses looms, it produces fear and anxiety.  Humans need to feel certain in their surroundings.  After all, the old fear that they might be thrown out of the tribe and die alone is still deeply embedded into their programming.

Trust gives us a sense of safety to explore and understand our world. In a business context, it means we can commit to actions, make decisions faster and have the confidence to buy into a big vision and get an innovative project off the ground.

Now, I know what your thinking.  “We measure trust in our employee engagement survey!”  But the majority of employee engagement surveys superficially measure the general trust level.  They don’t comprehensively delve into the behaviours that actually affect trust.  Trust is a complex emotion.  To measure trust accurately, it’s important to measure the trust level towards the organisation, the trust levels towards leadership (including behaviours that create or destroy trust) and trust within teams.  And not do basic mathematical analysis that highlights trivial stuff, giving leadership nothing concrete to act upon.

We can’t solve a problem if we don’t understand it.  For too long employee engagement has only been measured at a superficial level.  The reasons for this vary but some common reasons include:

  • Leaders or HR managers don’t really want to know the results for fear of what it might expose.
  • Leaders don’t really care that much about employees (let’s be honest here).
  • There is no real commitment to change.
  • The measurement instrument is flawed to begin with.

Trust is a hidden variable that remains out of conscious awareness, until you look for it.  Economically, it dramatically affects speed and costs.  Yet, comprehensively measuring trust and keeping employees informed about the results which are then actioned on, starts to build trust.  Ultimately, it improves strategic execution, as decisions are made faster because people trust each other.  This becomes a powerful competitive advantage.

But, it only works for companies willing to honestly assess themselves, their leaders and their systems.  This takes time and courage. Companies willing to do the work create high trust in management and the organisation.  The ultimate outcome is that the whole company becomes significantly better at achieving business goals.

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Marie-Claire Ross is the Founder and Chief Corporate Catalyst at Trustologie. She is a workplace sociologist, author, speaker and consultant focused on helping leaders put the right processes in place to accelerate trust during change and growth. She does this through strategic diagnostics, roundtables, workshops, coaching and consulting. Marie-Claire is also the author of the number three ranked book on Amazon, Transform your Safety Communication. She has been interviewed on “Technology Behind Business” for Sky Business News and regularly contributes articles to FM Magazine and LogiSYM on company culture. She is also a Graduate of the Company Director’s Course and is on the SME Committee for the Australian Institute of Company Directors.


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