Thursday, 14 March 2013

What Are Employee Engagement Surveys Really Assessing?

Does an increase in employee engagement scores lead to an increase in productivity or does an increase in productivity result in an increase in employee engagement scores? 

Much has been written on employee engagement, most of which focuses on the correlation that an increase in employee engagement leads to an increase in productivity.  In the Forbes article “Why Employee Engagement? (These 28 Research Studies Prove the Benefits)” 9/04/2012 increased engagement scores are linked to improvements in everything from retention, customer service revenue, profit, and shareholder returns, to service, sales, quality, and more. You would think that a little effort on improving employee engagement would cure just about anything in the workplace.

Couple this line of reasoning with statistics from reputable consulting firms that indicate only 31% of employees are engaged (Blessing White) and 17% of employees are actually actively disengaged.  Even when engaged only 70% of those say they have a good understanding of how to meet customer needs (Wright Management).  This further reinforces the notion that focusing on engagement scores leads to improvements to everything about the business. No wonder so much effort is put in at companies to create engagement programs and activities.

There is nothing wrong with employers trying to improve productivity and engage employees by providing them with rewards and recognition, not to mention other goodies like development and autonomy, and the perks of baby sitting, exercise programs, and the like.  While all are positive and helpful, you still have to question how these efforts impact the employee’s productivity?  After all employee engagement must engage the employee not the employer.

The questions that are asked in employee engagement surveys tend to focus the ‘blame’ for low engagement on matters external to the employee. The assumption is that employees are engaged, or not, because of their perceptions of their boss, their work environment or what they receive from the employer, rather than what they themselves contribute to being successful and truly engaged.  The assumption is that all motivation to be engaged with your work is extrinsic.

The real sources of employee engagement comes from the employee. They are the ones who are engaged or not. While the company might want to make an employee feel as though someone is doing something for them, engagement is actually internal to the individual. Does the employee find meaning in the work that they do and the contribution they make?  When do they feel most engaged? Contrast the difference in engagement when an employee does his or her routine job with when they volunteer to take on a task or trying to do something for the greater good? Really, organizations want us to feel the same way – engaged – when we are contributing to the greater success of the company. 

In my research, I find that engaged employees always take pride in the contribution they make to the company. For example, an  employee at a car part supply company mentioned that her friends don’t like being with her when the new car models hit the road because each time she sees a car with their part she gets excited. Another employee at a different company takes great pride in the item they manufacture because it makes a significant contribution to the country’s economy. Such people are engaged not because of the things that the company did for them or how their bosses act but because of the intrinsic value they feel they contributed to the success of something beyond themselves. They would not leave their company for more money or perks because they love doing their work and feel great about contributing.  Interestingly, in the latter example, company engagement scores were actually quite low because the engagement survey asked faulty questions.

In my view, engagement scores are good indicators of what people think the company is doing for them and not necessarily how they feel about what they are doing for the company. So this bring us back to the original question – does higher productivity get generated because engagement is improved or does engagement improve because of great results? 

I believe that companies should stop focusing on what can be done to make employees more engaged through external efforts. Instead, they should focus more on providing meaningful work or helping employees find meaning in the contribution they make. 

Gaining employee engagement does result in greater profits because enthusiastic employees stay, contribute discretionary effort, and feel that the contribution they make is meaningful beyond their own job.

Specifically, when trying to create the employee engagement leaders and managers need to:
  • Focus on two or three key examples of how the work they do contributes to something bigger.
  • Communicate this message initially to employees who are committed and engaged, then ask those workers to influence others with the similar feelings
  • Create a sense among employees that they have passion and pride in what they are doing.

Executives should share their own passion for their work, and identify times when success energizes the company and infuses the workplace with positive momentum.  These efforts will help turn the focus of employee engagement away from programs that the company ‘does’ for employees and back on what the employees does for the company, which is the real purpose behind these surveys. 


  1. Great post David. There is nothing more engaging (pardon the pun) than dealing with a person who is "on purpose." You don't have to do a survey. You can see it in their eyes.

  2. Industry seems to have forgotten that correlation is not causation.

    I agree with David that since employees have choice, they can choose to do a job and go home.

    To many people a job is just a job, for these people they "work to live".

    Don Ledbetter

  3. I couldn't agree more.

    Leaders are desperate to measure something because they know that people's performance is crucial to organizational success. However, engagement is not performance.

    Engagement "may be" correlated with performance but we cannot stretch that argument to suggest there is also a causal effect.

    Both engagement and performance are time specific, context specific, and very much dependent upon the individual’s propensity to be engaged and perform well.

    Furthermore, as David's article suggests, engagement surveys are really asking the employee how they feel about their employer, not about their work and their personal levels of motivation. And to make matters worse, companies with low engagement scores then report to their employees that "they are not engaged'!

    Let's stop this nonsense. Let's focus on developing successful leaders, managers, supervisors and teams that concentrate on performance and results. Most employees working in a great team, producing great results will want to come to work, want to offer ideas, want to interact with their colleagues and want to achieve even greater results.

    1. It gets even more complex.

      I have found that many organizations with 'low' engagement scores actually have highly engaged employees who are proud of their work and productive putting out quality work but they used the engagement survey to send a message. They often feel that the survey was too long or the questions were not relevant to them, and they just rushed through the answers without thinking.

      The only real engagement questions would be about how the employee was feeling about being part of an organization and the work they are assigned is meaningful.

      • Are they happy at work?
      • Do they find meaning in the work they do?
      • Do they have goals which are meaningful to the person?
      • Do they want to achieve the goals they have?
      • Are you finding meaning in working here and do you feel engaged?

      Other types of questions don't really matter they might love their boss and like the things they 'get' but is it meaningful what they do? If it is they are engaged. Until they feel, for themselves, that there is meaning in what they do and the company is aligned with their own values, they will not be engaged.

  4. I am glad to know these things through you. The company where I am currently working at is also implementing evaluations and survey. However I am not sure if ours works with any of employee engagement survey companies in the country. But surely any business would go better with such assessments.


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