Understand the purpose of a workplace engagement survey
In the United States not only is 20 March the spring equinox (a time when night and day are of equal length), it is also National Proposal Day, a day to get engaged. Inspired by the date, I thought it was timely to explore the what, why and how of employee engagement.
OK, so employee engagement does not happen at a single moment in time like a marriage proposal. But, it does concern the emotional bond and commitment that an individual feels in response to the actions of another, in this case those of an employer.
In simple terms, it is the attachment and loyalty someone feels for the organisation they work for.
And, just like any other human relationship, the more committed (engaged) someone feels, the more motivated they are to give of themselves (1).
Unsurprisingly this has been found to have a knock on effect on output. Organisations with highly engaged people report greater productivity (2).
Measuring employee engagement
If the success or otherwise of an organisation is linked to engagement, monitoring and managing it makes good business sense.
How well this is achieved is measured using staff surveys. An example being Gallup’s Q12 which uses just 12 questions (3).
The results are then presented to management using three classifications which correspond to the commitment, productivity and performance of a team or department.
Actively Disengaged: These people are unhappy and may spread unhappiness in and outside the organisation. They are generally negative and point out issues, provoking and convincing others to leave.
Not Engaged: These folk are likely to represent the majority in an organisation. They put in the time and do the work but not necessarily with any energy or enthusiasm. They may be either positive or negative in their outlook and opinion about the organisation.
Engaged: These people are passionate, bring solutions to problems and so move a business forward. They feel a strong connection to the organisation and its objectives and are willingly go the extra mile. These employees are positive in their outlook and champion the organisation.
But knowing an overall engagement score is only a benchmark against which to measure improvement or for ranking against similar companies. It provides little help to management in knowing what's missing.
Tip! It is meaningless telling employees that the business' current engagement score is X%. Sharing the company's engagement score with employees is like telling car passengers what speed the car is going. Only the driver needs to know that as they have the power to increase or decrease it. What matters to an employee is what changes management will make based on their responses.
Understanding what's missing
Each question's score provides an indication of which aspects of business culture or working conditions need to be reviewed and/or improved. But this doesn't tell you what's missing.
Knowing what action to take to improve engagement can only come from discussion with employees. Without talking, management have no real idea what may be influencing each answer or, what they should do before that talented person checks out and/or considers their options.
This requires digging down with employees themselves into what would be better for them, considering what can be achieved, taking action where management can and explaining when it can not.
What's hard in this respect is that managers and supervisors are often too caught up in the day job to find the time to run such a session, if indeed they feel comfortable to do so. And employees may find it difficult saying what they need, especially in an open forum.
Informal conversations are helpful here, as are employee forums or other facilitated sessions by an objective party from within HR or workplace well-being coach.
Four enablers of engagement
Central to understanding and improving employee engagement culture is the recognition that whilst an organisation is a set of systems and procedures, it is individuals who perform them and that they have needs.
Such an acknowledgement puts the onus on senior leaders to establish and engender an inclusive and respectful culture. An environment where everyone is seen and valued for who they are and what they do.
And, it holds immediate supervisors and managers responsible for driving or draining engagement, as they have the greatest influence over those in their teams.
A study undertaken for UK Government, Engaging for Success by David Macleod and Nita Clarke found four factors that organisations with high engagement share (4). These are considered enablers of engagement, each of which reinforces the others.
1. Strategic narrative
Simple – specific - inspirational
This element is concerned with an organisation’s purpose. Understanding the why and how of an organisation provides meaning, connects people to each other and the shared goal of the organisation. Fulfilling a very basic human need, belonging.
Without a narrative that they can buy-in to, employees are may not be willing to invest themselves in the business nor stay.
Example: Singularity of Purpose
A man came across three masons who were working at chipping chunks of granite from large blocks.
The first seemed unhappy at his job, chipping away and frequently looking at his watch. When the man asked what it was that he was doing, the first mason responded, rather curtly, “I’m hammering this stupid rock, and I can’t wait ’til 5 when I can go home. (Actively Disengaged)
A second mason, seemingly more interested in his work, was hammering diligently and when asked what it was that he was doing, answered, “Well, I’m molding this block of rock so that it can be used with others to construct a wall. It’s not bad work, but I’ll sure be glad when it’s done.” (Not engaged)
A third mason was hammering at his block fervently, taking time to stand back and admire his work. He chipped off small pieces until he was satisfied that it was the best he could do. When he was questioned about his work he stopped, gazed skyward and proudly proclaimed, “I…am building a cathedral!” (Engaged)
Three men, three different attitudes, all doing the same job. But one feels like he belongs. Simply having a sense of WHY has changed his perspective. He doesn’t think he is less than anyone else on the team, he is thus likely more productive, more loyal and more likely to stay on the job.
You get what you walk past
According to Gallup, managers account for 70% variance in employee engagement (6); they have the greatest influence over their teams so they naturally have a critical role to play in driving or draining engagement.
Everyone is an individual with differing human needs.
An engaging manager recognises this truth and spends time getting to know their people so that they can motivate them in the way that is best for them.
They are much more likely to coach and mentor team members rather than command and control them.
When a flower doesn't bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower (Alexander Dan Heijer)
3. Employee Voice
Seen – enabled – heard
Employee voice exists where everyone feels able to have a say, share their views and offer ideas. This is not simply employee surveys or Town Halls but whether people feel respected, heard and understood.
As Google recently found with Project Aristotle, the most engaged and effective teams are psychologically safe ones (7). People feel comfortable asking questions, discussing ideas, admitting mistakes and giving feedback without fear of repercussion, rejection or ridicule.
Without an open and inclusive culture there is little chance of engagement and a high likelihood of conformity and submissiveness. There is also little chance of innovation, creativity or growth.
An unsafe environment causes participants to share fewer ideas and to carefully filter the ideas they do share to be sure they are safe (Steve Smith)
4. Organisational Integrity
Mind the gap
Trust is a cornerstone in any relationship and as such cannot be taken for granted. It is far easier and takes less time to lose it than to rebuild it. When senior management recognises this fact, it consciously acts to develop and maintain it.
A way of doing this is ensuring that everyone, especially leaders and managers, walk the talk. They do what they say they will and are seen to act in accordance with stated organisational values.
Every leader casts a shadow, so be aware of the fact that people will do what you do (David Novak)
How to improve employee engagement culture
According to Engaging for Success all four elements help to engender employee engagement. This can make knowing where to start difficult. But as each interacts and reinforces the others, it doesn't really matter which you start with. However, a good place to begin, if your business is yet to have done this, is to build a Shared Narrative.
This is not just because it is an easier task but because a sense of connection is a basic human psychological need.
According to Maslow, once our physiological and safety needs are sufficiently met (food, water, safety, security), we seek to meet our social need: a sense of belonging.
In the workplace, this means after our needs for safety and security are met (with a wage and contract), we look for connection.
Understanding the mission of the business can help make work activities personally meaningful. This gives us a sense of purpose which in turn generates a feeling of commitment, as well as uniting everyone (no matter their role) to a common goal.
Consider the apocryphal janitor who, when JFK asked what he was doing, answered; “Mr President, I’m helping put a man on the moon”? He was engaged, he had connected his role with NASA’s mission.
Tip! if your organisation hasn't articulated it's mission, your people will likely have invented one based on the actions they see at the top.
As economies become progressively knowledge-based and talent in some sectors scarce, it will be an organisation’s people and how they are treated that will matter most.
It will matter to the organisation, it will matter to those that work there but it will also matter to the increasingly socially responsible buyer.
This means creating human workplaces that meet people's needs, that motivate and help them to be and do their best, should be at the heart of any business strategy.
Given that there are only four enablers to focus on this is not difficult but it does require an ongoing and active commitment to developing a culture that cares. And, as they say, there is no better time to start than ‘from this day forward’.
First Published March, 2020. Revised March, 2022.
1. Shanmuga Priya, I. & Vijayadurai, J. (2014) Employee Engagement in Organizations. European Journal of Business and Management Vol.6, No.34, 2014. [Accessed 10 March 2022]
2. Baldoni, J. (2013). Employee engagement does more than boost productivity. Harvard Business Review. [Accessed 10 March 2020]
3. Gallup Inc. (2016). Gallup Q12 engagement survey. [Accessed 10 March 2020]
4. MacLeod, David & Clarke, Nita (2009). Engaging for Success: enhancing performance through employee engagement. Available from Engage for Success. [Accessed 17 March 2020]
5. Krueger, J. & Killham, E. (2007) The Innovation Equation. Gallup Management Journal. [Accessed 10 March 2020]
6. Beck, Randall & Harter, Jim (2015) Managers account for 70% of variance in employee engagement. Gallup Management Journal. [Accessed 10 March 2020]
7. Google Inc. Guide: Understand team effectiveness. Re:work with Google. [Accessed 10 March 2020]