“You can’t run on empty…

Image credit: Mr Thinktank

Image credit: Mr Thinktank

…and that’s increasingly what employees are being asked to do.” Tony Schwartz – CEO of The Energy Project.

When I read this statement in an HBR blog entitled “New research: How Employee Engagement Hits the Bottom Line”, it strongly resonated with me. In the article, Schwartz references the Towers Watson Global Workforce Study, whose 2012 findings went beyond linking engaged employees to improved business performance and instead focused on the need for “sustainable engagement.

Schwartz defines sustainable engagement as “…a work environment that more fully energises employees by promoting their physical, emotional and social wellbeing.” This makes a lot of sense as there’s no doubt that people who embrace a healthy lifestyle such as exercise and good diet have improved capacity to deliver to their optimum.

However, we should recognise that even healthy, energetic employees will, almost inevitably, at some point crash and burn. I say “almost inevitably”, as fewer resources and higher performance expectations have become the new organisational norm. Wellness initiatives can only go so far. The other part of the equation is to prevent the constant pile-up of competing priorities by identifying and stopping any time-consuming / distracting activities that belong to an outdated business model.

My vote is to pull the plug on the annual employee engagement survey.

This might be a strange thing for an internal comms specialist to advocate, but my attitude towards so many of the large-scale employee surveys I have witnessed over the last few years is reflected in the following headline:

Employee engagement surveys: useless or very useless?” (Robert Gerst.)

I’m all for enabling employees to have their say and for holding management to account, HOWEVER, given the degree and pace of change over the past decade, the fragmentation of the communication landscape and the transformation of business operating models, surely there has to be a better way than the annual employee survey?!  In my view the only reason it is still so prevalent against all good sense is that there’s an entire industry that has evolved to promote the “science of the survey”.

Some of my key issues with the annual employee survey are:

  1. A tick box exercise: Too many times it seems that it’s just a numbers game; measuring engagement is less about the feedback and simply about how many employees have been persuaded to fill it in; quantity becomes a stand-in for engagement.
  2. The relevance of benchmarking: The requirement to benchmark progress through a consistent set of questions seems to ignore the fact that most organisations are going through fairly radical changes year on year thus calling into question the whole benchmarking exercise.
  3. Death by analysis: Too much of the follow-up activity is taken up with analysis and dissemination of results creating a significant delay between the survey and any resulting actions …. If they happen at all. This delay makes it easier to brush the difficult, recurrent issues under the carpet, damaging morale and increasing cynicism.
  4. Misplaced accountability: The ‘Annual Employee Engagement Survey’ is, most frequently a corporate initiative driven from the centre. This effectively removes any sense of ownership / accountability from those who need to develop and deliver remedial actions – the line managers. Could anything conceivably be a less effective engagement tool?

So what is the alternative?

The answer I recommend might seem even more old fashioned than the surveys I’ve just been decrying but the effort vs value equation for the alternative propositions are at opposite ends of the scale. I suggest that line managers should be trained to hold regular, meaningful conversations with their teams. This approach leverages what managers should already be doing daily in their role and minimises the distance between any issues and accountability for resolving them. The ideal process would be to create a feedback hub so that the organisation can spot common themes arising from these conversations and share effective response propositions.

In an era where the old era of top down communications via a few, centralised channels has been replaced with a communications environment which is informal, immersive and emotive, the role of the line manager as a key source of employee engagement (or disengagement) has never been more critical. To quote Tony Schwartz again:

No single behaviour more viscerally and reliably influences the quality of people’s energy than feeling valued and appreciated by their supervisor.” I suspect we can all relate to that.


About madeleinekavanagh

Internal comms specialist with a career spanning advertising, car sales and management consulting. My greatest legacy (so far) - my son!
This entry was posted in Employee Engagement, Feedback surveys, High performing companies, Middle management, People management / motivation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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