Why You Need to Kill Your Annual Employee Survey

— January 28, 2019

Last time we looked at the five stages of employee survey grief. This is the part where the executive team grapples with the discomfort of learning that, despite all kinds of warm intent, the employees are really no more “engaged” than last year. The best-case scenario is they are whining about different things.

The usual conclusion of this brief grieving process is to fling the problem at the feet of the head of the HR and to ask them to come up with a plan to solve disengaged, disgruntled and disaffected employees. Very often, the output of this instruction is the dreaded tiger team. Maybe they call it a task force in your organization. If someone’s having a creative day, it might be the Why You Need to Kill Your Annual Employee Survey“engagement council” or some clever acronym like Finding Unique Methods of Engagement (FUME).

What it’s called doesn’t really matter; it’s not likely to persist long enough to need custom t-shirts. Tiger Teams are the stage crew for corporate Engagement Theatre.

Let’s take a look at with who’s on your tiger team. Something as important as the engagement and satisfaction of the workforce demands nothing less than the considerable talents of your best leaders and managers.

Cue the Engagement All-Stars

Go ahead and pull together a dozen of your top directors and department managers. Grab a few of those hi-po (high potential) folks out of the leader development course and, why, you’ve got yourself an all-star team that’s sure to crack this sucker wide open and innovate the heck out of a disruptive solution to your workforce malaise. Tell them it will give them greater visibility with the executive team.

It’s worth pointing out that in sports such as baseball and basketball, the players who are chosen for the all-star teams are given time in which to go practice and play their all-star game. It’s generally not reasonable to consider the all-star thing to be a side hustle.

Yet when we appoint our accomplished executives and managers to things like the engagement tiger team, we expect them to work it into their already very full days. How many companies excuse their engagement fixers from some other responsibility to get this done? I’m guessing none. Be sure you send an email to the whole company announcing the team. Great theatre always starts with great publicity.

This means that the first meeting of this exalted group likely takes a good month or so to arrange and it likely happens at lunch, since that’s the only white space in anyone’s calendar. One place I worked, the engagement team met at 7:30am (exactly once).

Lunch is ordered, the guy from the survey company is brought back in, numbers are reviewed, a few priorities are identified, some spit-balling around solutions happens and then everyone’s phone beeps and they scatter back to their productive corners.

By the second meeting, the attendance numbers are a little thinner, but the plan is starting to come together, usually because someone in HR felt there should be some sort of tangible progress, a PowerPoint has been made.

It’s usually about the third meeting that the room realizes that engagement is not a thing that will be easily understood from a survey, which means it probably won’t be easily repaired with a photo contest about pets. The smart people in the room will soon work out that the employee survey is less a diagnostic tool than a set of fairly gooey symptoms.

What’s needed, of course, is a root cause analysis. If that sounds expensive, it’s because it usually is. Despite all the smart in the room, the truth is, you’re not going to understand workplace sentiment at any kind of actionable level without really digging into the reasons behind the numbers. Your tiger team can, at best, make some educated guesses and giant assumptions, but in the absence of actual data, these can lead only to the superficial theatre that passes for engagement – BBQs, awkward “breakfast with the boss” sessions, Intranet redesigns and so on.

Since most engagement fixing committees lack both clear mandate and budget, four meetings, and a few slides’ worth of recommendations is about all the output that can be expected before the team members begin begging their managers for a hall pass so they can get back to the stuff they are able to deliver.

In the absence of any meaningful change, we spin up the communications and crank out the videos, newsletters and town halls which form the backbone of great Engagement Theatre everywhere.

Ditch Your Annual Survey

Here’s an idea to get us around Engagement Theatre and perpetually mystifying survey results: Lose the survey next year. Just don’t do it. Make it bi-annual. On the off years, take that survey budget and pay someone to come in and do the root cause analysis on the prior year’s results and present a realistic plan to address the issues.

Nowhere is it written that employers are obliged to do a big survey every single year. In fact, the annual timing pretty much guarantees a cycle of incrementalism, since there is really very little time to get anything meaningful done between the results of one survey and the launch of the next. This is how we got into this mess to begin with. If we give ourselves the gift of both time and insight, we set our organizations up to make the changes that will have the impact we unreasonably expect from our poor tiger team.

We can still do surveys, in fact, we can take a page from our friends in customer service and marketing and find ways to pull insights from our most routine transactions, to provide a continual feed of real-time sentiment and opportunities to make little fixes along the way.

So let’s stop the Engagement Theatre and its sad tiger teams and balloon animals and let’s start dealing with the problems of the workplace and the workforce with the same rigour as we would our products, our revenue and our customer experiences.

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Author: Elizabeth Williams

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