How Employee Engagement Really Works

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We need to talk about employee engagement surveys. It’s great news that organizations are paying attention to engagement and its impact on performance. The bad news is that senior leaders seem to want a clear metric to judge how satisfied and motivated their people are. Management requires metrics, after all. Decisions require data.

Employee engagement surveys are the tool of choice to measure a company’s employee experience, motivation, and overall culture. Gallup research suggests that employee engagement is linked to many other important organization metrics like productivity, employee retention, and profitability. Unfortunately, Gallup has also found engagement is on the decline across the United States, particularly among remote, hybrid, and younger workers.

Ultimately, the reasons for the recent employee engagement decline and the inability to turn it around stem from a few problems with how most leaders treat engagement as a concept and engagement surveys as a tool. In this article, we’re going to review the top three problems with employee engagement surveys and offer a solution for each one that will not only boost engagement scores…but will engage your people.

Employee Engagement Problem #1: People don’t take the surveys seriously

Employee engagement surveys are only as important as leadership says they are, and the reliability can be a little flawed. No, don’t throw out surveys completely because the data might be flawed, but it’s important to know the context of how this engagement data is collected.

Your employee gets an email. It typically goes something like this:

“Dear Valued Employees,
Our company has brought in “GloboEngage360”, to survey different aspects of the company according to the point of view of its employees. This survey is not mandatory, but your feedback is greatly appreciated and will remain anonymous.”

Put yourself in an employee’s shoes. They have meetings all day. They have tasks to do and people to coordinate with. If it isn’t mandatory, something like this is going right to the bottom of the list of things to do, or just put into the trash immediately.

And most employee’s gut reaction to a message from leadership or outside consultants saying this is anonymous is, “This is definitely not anonymous.” So, will employees take this survey seriously at all? Hard to say. Is there some value to be had from collecting the data this way? A little, but it’s best used as a starting point into your own investigation into engagement.

But we also must consider leadership’s point of view. Survey goes out. The survey consultancy collects the data, makes a nice packet of insights, and boils down your people’s performance, happiness, and productivity all into nice little percentages. But the data is only as serious as the seriousness of the people who filled out the survey, and their seriousness is determined by how seriously they think leaders care about the survey.


Employee Engagement Solution #1: Share the results

This should be an easy thing to do. And it’s the easiest way to communicate that you’re serious about employee feedback and improving the employee experience. It’s a mystery why companies don’t typically share the results with those who took the survey. By not sharing, people can only speculate, and they’re probably going to go to draw the worst-case scenarios like “The company is going to restructure” or “My job is in jeopardy.”

So, share the results. You may not have gotten an accurate and serious picture of engagement in the results you’re sharing, but when employees see that you considered their responses and you’re making changes as a result, they’ll give these questions more consideration next time a survey is sent around.

To articulate that these surveys matter to your team, you don’t need to send them the entire data file or even the summary report the consulting firm created for you. It can be way simpler than that. Just take the time to share:

  • What positive results you’re proud of.
  • Why you’re so proud of those results.
  • What unexpected results you received.
  • And what you’ll be changing as a result.

That’s it. Just a simple email, memo, or quick video on what senior leadership learned from the survey and what they’ll be building upon or changing completely because of the survey.

Employee Engagement Problem #2: Leaders Interpret Data Wrong

After a survey is taken, the team from human resources or the consulting firm administering the survey will compile everything and prepare a summary report. And this is where things can go really wrong. Often the report is broken down by the different questions asked, and the lower scoring the question the more attention it gets. If one item is particularly low, then we start a companywide initiative to improve on that one item. Because when leaders only look at the companywide data, they tend to make decisions that impact everyone…companywide.

But if your company has issues, there’s a chance it’s not in every single department or every single team. Most people’s experience of work isn’t reflective of the entire company. It’s a commentary on the parts of the company they work with. Company culture is the average of the culture on each individual team.

You know what happens next. Now your top performing teams are subject to mandatory programs that will slow them down, confuse them, and ultimately make them feel punished. Those top performing teams need to be protected!

Employee Engagement Solution #2: Look team-by-team, not companywide

When you look at the data, don’t just take the overall metrics and run with them. If you have direct contact with the agency you used, ask them, or ask your HR or culture team, to get the metrics broken down to the team level, or as much functional or regional separation as you can get.

And then use those metrics to isolate the teams that are underperforming in whatever areas you measured and cater a solution to that team. Talk to that manager. Talk to the people on that team. See what’s going on.

The solution for that individual team is not going to be solved by a companywide solution. Big initiatives that touch every team in a company with the intent to weed out a problem often are too broad and diluted to fix the issue.

So, break those numbers down to the team level. Then, help the team leaders that are dragging the overall numbers down—and reward the team leaders who are serving their people well. Building a company culture is about building strong team cultures. It takes time, effort, and more than just the numbers and one big solution.

Employee Engagement Problem #3: Surveys are too infrequent

Employee engagement surveys are typically done once a year. Maybe twice. Remember, people don’t want to be inundated with surveys all year, and leadership and HR teams know that. So, companies will concentrate on that one survey ask a year. And companies will rely on HR and culture teams to implement a workplace environment that is inclusive, sparking innovation, and motivates and engages people.

It makes sense not to administer formal surveys too frequently throughout the year. HR should be very judicial when sending out surveys. But just because you’re not surveying people regularly, doesn’t mean you can’t be monitoring employee engagement regularly.

Employee Engagement Solution #3: Keep the conversation going on the team level

Managers can do their own anecdotal surveys, better known as a “conversation” with their team.

You, as a leader of your team, are ultimately responsible for your employees’ engagement and for fostering a purposeful culture. A company’s culture is the aggregate of all the teams’ cultures. This work really falls to you. Have ongoing conversations with your team and in your individual check-ins. Ask them what projects are going well. Ask them what they’re energy levels are like. Ask them how they’re interacting with their teams. And most importantly, ask them if there’s anything you can help with.

If you keep an open dialogue with your team about how things are going, the metrics from a yearly survey will not surprise or shock you. If you’re good, you’ll know before the survey.


Remember, a company’s culture is the sum of its team cultures. Invest in your teams, have open communication, and the engagement numbers will take care of themselves.

There’s a tendency to treat employee engagement like the score of a game, and so we shouldn’t be surprised when people try to game the system and improve the score. But the point of collecting all that data isn’t to learn how to improve a number. It’s to know where we need to pay more attention to our people and how we can help them feel more connected to their work and to the team they work with.


About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

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