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Employee Engagement Strategy: Three Survey Myths

employee engagement strategy

By Scott Ahlstrand

Employee engagement strategy is threatened by three outdated myths about how to conduct employee engagement surveys. These myths are undermining their value, wasting the investment and missing the opportunity to gain the deeper insights that can actually lead to better employee performance.  See if you’re laboring under any of these value-sapping myths.

Myth #1 – Census
This is the myth that every employee should get the exact same survey. A one-size-fits-all design is said to improve efficiency and organizational momentum, while avoiding employee confusion over why people got different sets of questions.
 
There is little academic or real-world proof that this belief is valid and, in fact, just the opposite is true.  We’ve seen dozens of examples where a more robust design provided enhanced (in quality and quantity) insights. Give 20,000 employees a questionnaire of 40 questions and you’ll get insights on only 40 items. A far better design is to craft a core set of 30 to 35 questions and then create an additional 10 to 15 modules of 3 to 5 questions each. These “modules” can be distributed on a random, geographic, functional or experiential basis. The average survey is still only 40 questions long—but you’ve gained insights into 100 different items across the organization.
 
Myth #2 – Consistency
Or, as I call it, laziness. According to the consistency myth, each new survey has to match the one before in order to measure progress and trends reliably. Sounds logical, right?  The trouble is, organizations are organic not static entities. Your survey instrument needs to change by at least 10% each wave to stay relevant to your current strategy, organizational model and needs, and enable you to uncover timely information that will be useful strategically or tactically. Again, optimized design and proper use of modules and sample sizes can achieve this without impacting your core survey.
 
Myth #3 – Comparability
It’s easy to fall for the myth of comparability. Management often wants to measure their organization against the competition but, in fact, the value of benchmarking data is a myth. Survey vendors have accumulated a database of companies whose employees have answered the exact same questions (word for word) that your employees are being asked. You are promised that you’ll gain tremendous insights by seeing how your employees stack up against the “industry-wide norm.”
 
However, the companies in such a database are only convenience-based samples and are not representative of an industry or geography. In fact, you will learn little of value because while industries tend to be consistent, organizations exhibit tremendous variability—variability in how the culture operates, what concepts mean and how they do what they do. Convenience-based comparisons based on standardized surveys won’t help you improve. Instead, customize your questions to your company’s unique culture, situation and needs to uncover your organization’s unique strengths and weaknesses and get the insights that enable meaningful change.
 
These myths have gained credibility over the years because of the sheer number of organizations that bought into them. But, if we’re honest, we know this outdated approach to employee engagement stalls out over time and provides limited realization of business-wide benefits. Instead, I’d like to see companies move towards more enlightened practices that align better to changing business needs:

  • Obsess over improvement rather than comparisons,
  • Demand as much accountability from senior leaders as from front-line managers,
  • Drive toward targeted actions that leverage organizational strength and remove the barriers to engagement.

How about your company? Is your employee engagement strategy being hobbled by worn-out survey myths and methodologies?

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