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Employee Engagement Surveys: Junk Science or Useful Tool?

November 24, 2019

How many times have you filled out an employee questionnaire at work, dutifully responding to questions ranging from training and development opportunities to communication to teamwork to leadership?

And then what happened in the following months?

Did you and your co-workers see concrete action by management to address your feedback? We’re not talking about such things as communication newsletters, focus groups, town halls or even one-on-one interviews to gather deeper information from employees. We’re talking about behavioural change within the organization.

A favourite strategy within many organizations is to create action–call it busyness–for inaction, the consequence of which is inertia. The deception of being busy produces nothing in the end unless people are integrated into the process of finding effective solutions for workplace problems.

Robert Gerst, a partner with Converge Consulting Group, wrote a paper entitled Understanding Employee Engagement and Trust: The New Math of Engagement Surveys. The paper appeared in 2013 in the American Society for Quality’s Journal of Quality and Participation. As the paper stated:

The dirty little secret of employee engagement surveys is that they’re largely junk science – placing the marketing objective of telling and selling a good story above the practical and ethical objective of telling the truth.”

In the process, data gathering methodologies are misused and false conclusions reached based on inaccurate statistical measures. The result is largely meaningless survey results, yet while giving the impression of scientific validity.

It doesn’t take a lot of Googling to discover hundreds–make that thousands–of websites that talk about employee engagement and their solutions. I’ll share below my own personal workplace experience some years ago with a large-scale employee survey process that spanned over a decade. But first a couple of observations.

The definition of insanity has been described as expecting a different result while doing the same thing over and over again. This describes employee engagement surveys.

Psychologist (Yale and Harvard) and the creator of Double Loop Learning and many more concepts Chris Argyris talked years ago about the folly of using employee questionnaire surveys as part of organizational change efforts. As he bluntly put it, these surveys place the responsibility for change with management. Employees, having done their part by completing a questionnaire, sit back waiting for management to fix the problems.

When human beings have something done TO them and not WITH them, the consequence is disempowerment. Here’s one concrete example.

During part of my three-decade career with the Government of Canada, I devoted substantial time to managing projects dealing with organizational mergers, downsizing, leadership development for middle managers, and researching and writing concept papers for senior management. I was also involved for a brief time with the Government’s introduction of its employee questionnaire survey, which began in the late nineties and which continued for well over over a decade.

The survey was sent out every other year to over 200,000 federal public servants spanning dozens of departments and agencies. While the survey findings varied across departments, as well as within them (across work units), the overall results were pretty dismal when viewed through a leadership lens.

Public servants felt disempowered, not listened to by management, training was inadequate, communication poor, etc. One compelling question was: “Do you believe that management will constructively address the issues raised in the survey?” (I’ve paraphrased this question).

The response to this question was consistently negative, i.e., employees didn’t believe that management would deal with the issues raised in the survey.

Canada’s Prime Minister at the time cancelled the latest survey for budget reasons (saving some $220 million). Perhaps that was a good idea, given that the Public Service survey only reinforced the cynical attitude by many employees. Remember Chris Argyris’ viewpoint.

To say that the Public Service survey was an impotent tool devised by the federal government would be too kind a comment. In reality, it was a decade-long example of how NOT to gather information from employees in the naïve belief that this would somehow produce a more engaged and empowered workforce.

Based on the above definition, one could conclude that insanity prevails in the upper ranks of Canada’s Public Service: management expects a different result despite nothing changing.

Don’t get caught up in the hyperbole of employee engagement. As with past fads (e.g., Business Process Re-engineering, Total Quality Circles, and the Learning Organization), the employee engagement fad is being milked for all its worth by consultants who hope to make a few bucks from it before attention turns to the next fad.

And of special importance is understanding that mouthing the words “employee engagement” by management is typically a tactic to deflect attention, however briefly, from the substantive issues facing organizations.

Creating an “engaged” workforce takes time and is a reciprocal process, in which EVERYONE in the organization must take personal responsibility and demonstrate personal action to make things better.

Take a moment to share your thoughts and experiences. JT

Free your mind from corporate lexicon, the status quo and bureaucratic inertia, and follow instead your self-empowered creativity to add true value to your organization.

– James Taggart

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