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Why Do Your Employees Keep Flaming You On The Employee Engagement Survey?

By Sander Biehn | Mar 1, 2015

John couldn’t wait for the annual employee engagement survey. Over the phone he complained to me that although his team was selling the money making cash cow services for the business, each time someone left the team their position was not backfilled. Rather, management had decided to use that headcount for new sales people in divisions that were struggling to make their numbers.

When the survey results were reported on our quarterly conference call, it was hard not to guess which comments were John’s in the PowerPoint deck: “Do y’all need to go back to MBA school? If you want to be profitable, you need to fund the growing parts of your business adequately…otherwise talent will walk.” As I read the comments, I could almost hear John’s folksy southern drawl in my eardrums.

The engagement scores indicated very low morale. The top deck had to do something. They decided to create a divisional improvement council that would take the feedback from the survey and make suggestions for change. Was it any surprise that John was chosen to represent us in the Southeast?

“Do you think they know who wrote the comments on the surveys? They were supposed to anonymous. I wouldn’t put it past them to peak.” John was scared. When I checked in on him a month later he was bemoaning what a waste of time the council was. Pollyanna band aid fixes were suggested and all the work fell on the council and mid-management to implement after it was blessed by the higher-ups. “It begs the question why we do this survey at all,” John fell silent.

Employee engagement is more important than it has ever been. Big bucks are being spent on administering engagement surveys and internal social media sites to understand how employees think the company is doing. Finding talent is expensive and employees are staying in position for less time. Low employee engagement and morale can prevent a divisional VP or even the CEO from making their goals.

Early in my career another curmudgeon named Marty wrote on his survey: “It doesn’t matter what I say, nobody reads this anyway. In fact, I will give $20 to anyone who responds to me about this comment.” He received a phone call from our VP a week later explaining that he could keep the $20. But Marty was scared stiff. Now he believed that his management was watching and critiquing his every thought. Certainly, Marty only had himself to blame, but both stories point to the inadequacy of surveys in driving real engagement from the workforce.

The solution to tapping engagement is both incredibly simple and exceptionally difficult to do. Both management and employees need to learn how to better give and receive feedback and actively listen to one another. If John had been listened to about his workload and perception that the hiring forces were asleep at the wheel, he would have never needed to flame the survey. The survey only served to reinforce his belief that no one really cared about building a profitable company. While he shared his concern with his manager, that was the end of the conversation. Well-meaning but fearful middle management often sees their role as a pin-cushion for frontline employee complaints. They bury the complaint so upper management does not question the fine job they are doing with their team.

Feedback is a two way street. Not all ideas or concerns are created equally. It may have been that the company was not worried about John’s division. Perhaps the top level goal that year was to grow another division to pump up sales for Wall Street in a strategic area. Sharing this with John would have solved the disconnect. But if the executive levels are not hearing John, they have no way to respond and the mistrust and frustration grow.

It isn’t easy to change a corporate culture from command and control to open listening and feedback, but here are a couple of suggestions:

1. Throw out the survey and spend the money training management and employees in giving feedback. Explain how crucial it is to talk and equip the team with the tools to critique and question with poise.

2. Reward innovation. Lay the quest to innovate at the divisional chiefs’ doorsteps and have divisions compete for new ideas. Use the feedback training to facilitate and vet ideas through the management levels. Always include the individual in presenting the idea to the top deck…no one is more invested in the idea than the originator.

When was the last time a survey made you feel good after you took it? When was the last time you saw timely and tangible change as a result of a survey? We are all living in real-time decision making loops. Equipping our teams emotionally and rhetorically to effectively communicate has never been at a higher premium.


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