Here’s Why Your Employee Engagement Survey Isn’t Paying Off

It seems like most organizations these days are spending significant time, money and energy in an effort to drive up employee engagement through surveys or other efforts. But, is that investment really paying off?

The engagement survey is a seductive mistress for leaders and human resources professionals. After all, who doesn’t want to have engaged employees?

Most employee engagement experts speak with great assurance in their voice when they tell you that engagement drives improved performance. And even better, the employee engagement survey is finally a way quantify the impact of the “softer” work we do in human resources on talent development and motivation.

“Not so fast, my friend”

Win, win, win. We often don’t even need a business case to make the investment in employee engagement. It just seems to make too much sense.

But, as ESPN’s college football analyst Lee Corso is fond of saying, “Not so fast, my friend.”

The engagement survey is a seductive mistress for leaders and human resources professionals.

Because so many organizations have been seduced by the siren call of engagement surveys, they’ve neglected to do some of the really important work necessary to unlock the real power of employee engagement. There are a few fundamental questions to answer that will guide you in pursuing employee engagement in a way that is more likely to produce a measurable impact on your organization’s business results.

As you think about your employee engagement efforts, start with these questions before you make and investments or decisions:

1. How do you define engagement for your organization?

The first step of measurement is definition. One of the biggest issues with employee engagement is that there seems to be as many definitions of engagement as there are people on the planet.

In the absence of a standardized definition of engagement, it is absolutely critical to get clear on what engagement means for your organization. If you haven’t defined engagement for your organization clearly and you have been using an engagement survey from a vendor, you are defaulting to their definition of engagement which may or may not be relevant to your business.

2. How does engagement drive your business results?

Definition is the first step. The second is to clearly articulate how that definition of engagement drives business results in your organization. And, you can’t take the word of an engagement survey vendor on this.

When a vendor assures you that they have evidence that engagement drives results, here’s what they really mean: “We have some evidence that shows a correlation between our definition and method of measuring engagement to very specific business outcomes in a particular client’s organization.”

This doesn’t mean squat to you unless your definition of engagement matches theirs and the research they did was in a company nearly identical to yours.

The answer to this question must be specific to your organization. It’s the answer to the CEO’s question, “Why should we do this?” Unless you can articulate what engagement is and draw a clear linkage to how it impacts the results that matter in your organization, this process will never be truly embraced by the executive suite.

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3. Can we measure it in a way that impacts business results?

Measuring employee engagement is ultimately about employee research. It’s not about a number. It’s about actionable insights that enable leadership to make informed decisions about how to improve the work environment towards achieving great results.

With a definition in hand, it becomes much easier to make decisions related to the right survey tool and methodology to use.

When you think about how to do this research, one thing to consider seriously is the differentiation of employee responses. The way you look at your data should mirror your management philosophy. If you are a performance culture, how will you differentiate survey results by high versus low performers?

Because so many organizations have been seduced by the siren call of engagement surveys, they’ve neglected to do some of the really important work

4. How will we prove engagement’s impact on results?

Equipped with answers to the first three questions, don’t forget to collect the data that demonstrates the impact of all of your hard work. It’s one thing to say that engagement will produce better customer satisfaction. It’s another thing to show a direct linkage between the two data sets.

There is great potential in employee engagement. But, that potential is lost when we are careless about our definitions, measurement and actions to drive it. Employee engagement is a conceptual framework without a foundation of common definition.

Build that foundation for your organization and you have a much greater opportunity to unleash its power within your organization.

This was originally published on Teamster, The League of Extraordinary Speakers blog

Jason Lauritsen a keynote speaker, author and advisor.  He is an employee engagement and workplace culture expert who will challenge you to think differently. 

A former corporate human resources executive, Jason has dedicated his career to helping leaders build organizations that are good for both people and profits. 

Most recently, he led the research team for Quantum Workplace’s Best Places to Work program where he has studied the employee experience at thousands of companies to understand what the best workplaces in the world do differently than the rest. 

Jason is the co-author of the book, Social Gravity: Harnessing the Natural Laws of Relationships. Connect with Jason at


6 Comments on “Here’s Why Your Employee Engagement Survey Isn’t Paying Off

  1. My definition of employee engagement is employees working to improve the process. If they care enough to submit an idea, they are likely to be conscientious and dependable in their other duties. Surveys are needed because HR and upper management cannot see what’s happening with frontline employees.

    An online kaizen forum can also measure employee engagement. Post a problem and collect comments/ideas. Just like you are doing here. This process ensures frontline supervision embraces employee engagement since upper management can see how problems are processed (accountability).

  2. An engagement is difficult to judge without exit interview data. Without insight from the people who opted out of the organization, no matter the reason, engagement provides an incomplete picture to busines impact.

    1. Toby…I’ve never been a big believer in exit interviews. Perhaps I’ve just never seen them done a) right or b) effectively, but I’m just not certain how reliable the data is, to be honest with you. My gut tells me that most exiting employees are “checking the box” and telling their employers what they want to hear, so they can move on and leave as quietly as possible. That being said, how exactly would you go about connecting the dots between exit interview data and engagement? What would that look like?

      1. Seth,

        Doing things incorrectly, too often, is an unfortunate element that should detract from if it should be done. But I do agree, I have not often seen it done well.

        People want to be heard. Exit interviews provide your organization an opportunity to find out why your talent disengaged. How did the organization lose this person’s motivation, to the degree a job change was a preferred option? Changing jobs is no small endeavor, so the information available lends qualitative and quantitative data.

        My main point, though, is that the population who take the engagement survey is biased because the disengaged are no longer part of the survey population.

        Most surveys I’ve been involved with are a train wreck from concept,
        agenda, administration, and analysis too, but people continue to launch
        them. Just getting a dialogue with the survey sponsor on why to use a 7-point over 5-point scale reveals a good opportunity for survey quality.

        2 views: [this report is worth the sign in]

        When you can combine opinion from who remains and who left you have a better organization environment scan. Those truly disengaged either hamper business productivity, and you want to find out why, or chose to leave and you want to find out why, as well.

        How could exit interviews provide a more clear view?

  3. Great points, Jason. I particularly like the first one, defining engagement for your organization. After all, no two organizations or teams are alike. Some teams require more than others, meaning engagement should be increased. Either way, remember to always illustrate to your employees what is expected of them, company focus, as well as their role in it. When they are innately aware of what they need to do, and how engaged they should be with each, you’ll probably find engagement to be a very natural thing for any team member.

  4. In my opinion, Jason Lauritson’s viewpoint is flawed, even thought the underlying sentiments should certainly be heeded to. Taking his four questions, I would respond this way:

    * How do you define engagement? – He stated: “If you haven’t defined engagement for your organization clearly and you have been using an engagement survey from a vendor, you are defaulting to their definition of engagement which may or may not be relevant to your business.” Jason’s overlooking that there’s been plenty of research over the years of people’s fundamental drivers in a work environment. These have been done with millions of people over more than one continent and are simple in nature. You only have to read the books “Drive” by Daniel Pink and “The Enthusiastic Employee, ” by Dr. Sirota and you will see the basis of the PEACAM survey I’ve developed. It is simple and doesn’t need adapting to any organization, since it will just indicate whether the organization is “lighting fires within their people” or ‘lighting fires under them.” Most of them are doing the latter, which is why they don’t have “engagement.”

    * How does engagement drive your business results? – If you have true engagement, you don’t have to “drive” business results: “driving results” implies that you are already failing in engagement. With proper engagement you only have to “focus” and “steer’ people toward the results you desire. My answer to a CEO’s question, “Why should we do this?” is: Most business results are only of interest to the owners, shareholders or executives; they are not translated into the expectations of other stakeholders in or around their organization. Hence most business results are not personalized to everyone required to produce them, ergo there’s limited engagement.

    * Can we measure it in a way that impacts business results? and How will we prove engagement’s impact on results? – To get the pay-off of any engagement initiatives, executives have to do their work, too: which is to faithfully implement the common-sense strategies that usually emerge from any PEACAM survey. So many executives don’t get the pay-off because they’re too busy pointing their finger at their people rather than themselves. When executives do fully play their part, the results from the oraganization and their people speak for themselves – it’s a no-brainer. It doesn’t need a lot of research because it will be pretty self-evident. However, since people by nature are a “slow moving resource,” you normally have to wait up to nine months in a consistently positive environment (rather than being yanked around to all sorts of crisis) for the full results to emerge. There are usually no overnight wonders with people.

    It is within this context that I have my beef with Jason, even though I’m sure he does a lot of good work with his own approach. What usually puts a lot of CEOs off, is the reams of analysis and data that are thrown at them, with no simple approach to implement the outcome. That needs to change, if we’re gpoing to make progress with the “engagement issue.” Best, Peter A. Arthur-Smith, Leadership solutions, Inc.

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