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Columbia Business Monthly

Make Engagement Surveys Work

Nov 30, 2017 10:08AM ● By Emily Stevenson
Dr. Robert E. Ployhart

‘Tis the season for Thanksgiving, holiday celebrations, and… engagement surveys! Firms have been using engagement surveys for years, and it is increasingly common to administer the annual survey sometime either November-December or January-February. There can be a lot of skepticism about the value of engagement surveys. However, such skepticism is only warranted when the surveys are not used appropriately. A well-developed and carefully-implemented engagement survey can offer considerable value and insight. 

An effective engagement survey will have the following characteristics:

Simple items. There is a tendency for survey developers to write items with a lot of complicated jargon. Avoid that tendency and keep the items simple and focused on one topic per item. For example, an item “How satisfied are you with your leader and coworkers” is impossible to interpret, because it’s impossible to know whether the leader or coworkers are driving the response. The solution is simple: one topic per item, such as “How satisfied are you with your leader?” and “How satisfied are you with your coworkers?”

Behavioral items. Effective surveys use behavioral items. Focusing on behaviors helps provide more actionable feedback (discussed shortly). Behavioral items help you learn what you should keep doing, and what you should stop doing. For example, the item “I am satisfied with the feedback I receive” is marginally helpful. “My supervisor provides timely constructive feedback” is better because it explains what the manager actually does and when. The best survey items are behavioral and written with TACT: Target (who), Action (what/behavior), Context (where), and Time (when). 

Focus on critical behaviors. It’s easy to let an engagement survey spin out of control. There is a temptation to ask just one more question, and then one more, until the survey is too long. Long surveys lead to lower response rates. In my experience, an engagement survey that takes longer than 10 minutes to complete is going to lower your response rate. That said, shorter is better, so a few items that focus on critical behaviors is preferred to a longer survey with more breadth. A survey focused on critical behaviors can be completed in under five minutes. 

Direct reports of managers. Engagement surveys are helpful for learning about the overall organization, the aspects of employment where employees are more/less satisfied, etc. But it is also important to assess the engagement of managers’ direct reports. At least five direct reports must respond to ensure the responses are anonymous (some firms may rely on a minimum of three). Now it is easier to understand why a short survey is critical—it ensures you can calculate engagement scores for more managers. 

Link engagement data to financial, operational, or accounting metrics. There is no point in administering an engagement survey unless it is linked to tangible outcomes. Engagement surveys should not be used solely as a descriptive tool; they should also be used as a prescriptive tool. I have worked with many firms to link their engagement data to other employee data (e.g., performance, turnover), but more importantly, financial data (e.g., sales, profit, return on assets). When engagement is statistically related to key organizational performance metrics, it becomes possible to quantify the positive value of an engaged workforce. Do you want to know the dollar difference between a workforce that is more (versus less) engaged? Simple; look at the relationship between engagement and relevant financial outcomes. 

Provide feedback to managers. When the survey items are behavioral and linked to key performance metrics, the responses to the survey can help managers know what they should continue doing, what they should start doing, and what they should stop doing. We frequently will look at the statistical relationship between each survey item and performance. We then will identify the five items with the strongest positive relationship, and the five items with the lowest positive (or sometimes negative!) relationship. Together, this data tells us the five behaviors effective managers exhibit and the five behaviors ineffective managers exhibit. With this information, it is now possible to provide actionable coaching for each manager based on his/her survey results. 

Hold managers accountable for their engagement results. Hold the managers accountable for their engagement results. Of course, you need to do this responsibly. For example, a manager whose direct reports manifest low engagement scores should be given an opportunity to improve, and the knowledge of how to improve (i.e., which behaviors should s/he start and stop doing). Set meaningful goals for engagement scores, and use the manager’s prior engagement scores as a baseline for comparisons. You should also compare engagement scores across managers. Whether this cross-manager comparative data is made public to all managers, is dependent on each firm’s unique culture and leadership style.

Odds are good that your firm wants to know about the engagement of the workforce. Following these suggestions will help ensure your engagement survey provides as much value as possible.