by Kevin Brownsey | Jan 19, 2024

Does employee engagement need a re-think?

For many years the annual employee engagement survey has been an ever-present in the HR project calendar. And quite rightly too. Consulting employees about what they are satisfied with and how the organization can improve, is an important part of the employer/employee relationship and building trust. The process is usually 1. Conducting a survey 2. Analysis and interpretation of results 3. Focus group hypothesis exploration and 4. Priorities & action planning. The resulting objectives are often an important part of a management team’s annual scorecard.

So why a re-think?

The traditional approach is essentially a top-down process. The survey provider will recommend (or insist upon) a standard set of statements that are supposedly the critical satisfaction drivers for everyone, everywhere, always. These statements are then scored on a scale representing strong ‘disagreement’ through to ‘strong ‘agreement’, indicating a level of anonymous satisfaction (engagement surveys are nearly always anonymous to encourage honest participation). This is subsequently aggregated by team, function, and ultimately organization. The results may then be ‘correlated’ with some engagement statements such as ‘I recommend my organization to my friends’ and we learn what satisfaction buttons to press to increase organizational engagement, and therefore productivity. The link between engagement and productivity is well established and this process has been in place for several decades and has worked to the ‘satisfaction’ of leaders around the world.

Indeed, at redpill consulting we have run employee engagement surveys of this type for many years, gradually trying to adapt our approach to ensure we capture higher quality and more relevant feedback, albeit anonymously.

However, although this approach has worked to a greater or lesser extent, have circumstances changed enough to consider a re-think?

Is it time to think bottom-up?

Employees in a post-pandemic 21st century are looking for something more meaningful regarding their work, not just the millennials who are often quoted as being ‘different’, but most generational groups, if not all.

Think about it for a minute. How can an employee engagement survey be ‘top-down’ in a world where organizational loyalty is lower, emotional attachment to the employer is lower, and lifestyle, purpose, and flexibility are more important to people? This means more personal nuance is required. Organizations that want to retain their best people are going to have to adapt to them, not the other way around. We can no longer sheep-dip teams through the same ‘engagement’ process and expect them to all respond with equally positive effects, could we ever?

So, what could we do differently?

How about we ask employees, all of them, what is most important to them? How about we adopt a measure of fulfillment that compares satisfaction levels with importance levels? If ‘My personal development’ scores high on the importance and middle on satisfaction, it's way more important to address than ‘Company reputation’ which may score low on importance and low on satisfaction’. If that grates a little, I apologize. We could still aggregate the scores to team, function, and organization, but now we have what really matters at the top of our list, not just what scores lowest.

Is it necessary that every aspect of these surveys remain anonymous? How about we identify for every individual what is most likely to drive them personally? We don’t need to reveal any scores to do this, we simply let the manager of an individual know which buttons to press to engage each member of their team more personally, and hence the manager can decide where to spend their energy, to retain their precious talent. Isn’t this also the perfect outcome for an individual, the ability to answer anonymously, knowing that my own personal priority will be known to my manager?

What if we allowed the employee to tell us what satisfaction drivers might be missing from our survey? How about we capture a customized set of priorities for everyone? Ten years ago, this would have meant someone pouring over potentially thousands of surveys to identify who said what, and even then, it would have been anonymous! Today with word recognition technology this can be done in seconds. Maybe your standard set of statements needs an update?

In the past, we measured employee satisfaction to increase discretionary effort and ultimately, productivity. In the future, I believe we will measure employee satisfaction to increase personal fulfillment and ultimately, loyalty.

In the next few months, we will be developing and testing a new system that does all the above and a lot more. The intention is to provide organizations with a set of outcomes that they can act on, knowing it is based on individual prioritization not anonymized statistical correlation. If you would like to be part of our trialing process, free of charge, please let me know.

Kevin Brownsey

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