Why employee engagement surveys are measuring the wrong thing



I’ve previously talked about the issue of focusing on employee engagement and how this has been a distraction for leaders and communicators. The phrases “employee engagement” and “internal communications” are often used interchangeably and this also takes me into soapbox territory!

I recently had a lightbulb moment about this topic while listening to Jacob Morgan’s book, The Employee Experience Advantage. The book is all about winning the war on talent, giving employees what they want from their workplace, as well as the tools they need and a culture they can celebrate. He says:

“Engagement looks at the effect not the cause.”

In this video, Jacob explains what this means for an organisation:

So, employee experience is the cause, an engaged workforce is the effect and then you get business outcomes. The statement from Jacob nicely articulates why employee engagement – in particular the symptoms we see when it’s poor – is such a distraction.

When people tell me their engagement scores, I ask what they mean because I still genuinely can’t grasp what a 65% engagement score means in practice. Instead, I think it’s the experience we want to talk about and it’s the experience we want to measure, linked to each stage of the employee lifecycle – attraction, recruitment, onboarding, development, retention and separation.

If the recruitment process is sloppy or slow – that’s an experience. If development is lacking and people don’t feel they can progress – that’s an experience. If people aren’t praised or rewarded for their work – that’s an experience. All these experiences can contribute to a lack of engagement.

Understanding the impact we have on each employee’s experience, at each stage, enables us to see what we need to do to improve it.

In all the work we do consulting with organisations, we’re looking for the root cause of issues they are experiencing. Using The Field Model for employee experience is the codified way we do this. And we can measure using surveys, interviews, focus groups or data from HR systems, but what’s important, though, is that we’re measuring the right thing.

When I was writing my book, Influential Internal Communication, I talked to Benjamin Ellis, Managing Director of SocialOptic – one of our partner organisations. I love the example Benjamin gave to explain the importance of measuring the right things:

“You could ask people ‘How bacon is this organization?’ And people say, ‘Well it’s really bacony’, or ‘It’s not very bacony’. Now you have a measure that says, ‘We are 10 per cent more bacony than last month,’ but it doesn’t correlate to anything in the real world.
This is clearly a made-up example but replace bacon with any other word organizations use to describe themselves and you can see how meaningless it can be.”

If you’re looking to review or change things in your organisation, and you’re seeing a lack of engagement in your teams, you must get to the root cause. Yes, this can be uncomfortable and challenging. And it might feel personal as a leader, but we have to do the hard work to improve things.

If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

If you’d like to find out more about how we use The Field Model to improve the employee experience, please get in touch. Further reading: Warm welcomes, fond farewells – why every stage of the employee life cycle matters


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