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engagement survey

Engagement Survey Use and Misuse

Leaders cannot engage people. People must engage themselves. All a leader can do is clear the way. Despite this, I often find overreaching conclusions from employee engagement surveys about leader’s capability that ought not be drawn, and decisions based on those conclusions that ought not be made.

Engagement is either in the nature of a person or it is not. Some employees will never be engaged no matter what you say or do because the business you want is not what they want. That’s fine, but perhaps they should be in a different role or in a different company. Other employees are simply disengaged from life, not just from your business specifically. You cannot fix that.

Still other employees are clinically depressed. At any given time, ten percent of adults are experiencing depression in some form, which often goes undiagnosed. Depressed people don’t often know that what they are experiencing is depression, and instead assign blame to factors in their environment to explain how they feel. That effects engagement surveys. Nothing other than diagnosis and treatment can help with depression, no matter how talented a leader might be.

In my experience, the most talented leaders never hesitate to implement bold strategic change in their organizations if that is what it takes to get the results they want or need. In most cases of strategic change, discomfort, confusion, and uncertainty might reign as the people in the organization adjust to a new reality. Engagement survey scores typically drop before they rise again—and that’s normal. Yet in some companies, a CEO’s remuneration is tied to engagement survey results—an idea so terrible I don’t even know where to begin.

One of the most successful CEOs in Japan I know implemented a bold strategic change that in the end added several percentage points to the bottom line—a lot of money in his business. Despite this, his remuneration was docked as engagement survey scores dipped temporarily. Had he held back on the change and avoided the survey score drop, he would have been rewarded—all while the business would have lost a major opportunity for profitability growth. The survey results went up the following year, but he had already been penalized for essentially doing the right thing and acting in the best interests of the business.

A CFO I know at a household name tier-one Japanese company who is in charge of a much needed strategic change initiative told me how engagement survey scores had dropped precipitously, prompting the company’s leadership to tamp back on objectives. That was a strategic mistake on their part, and I told him so. I explained that while bold, strategic change might cause a temporary drop in engagement, it is mediocrity, lackluster results, and lack of change that cause chronic disengagement. I asked him which kind of disengagement he preferred. His mouth was gaping open as the scales fell from his eyes, and he realized just what his company had done.

I was recently speaking with a Japanese sales director of European company whose CEO had concerns about the sales director’s leadership capability because his department’s engagement survey score was one of the lowest in the company. Yet in speaking with this sales director, there was nothing that immediately gave me any hint of a serious leadership deficit. In fact, it was the opposite. He appeared to me to understand leadership, and to be doing all the right things in the right way.

His staff was not so large and he spoke with all of them. He quickly realized that the top performing people were enthusiastic about the much needed reforms he was implementing, and they were engaged. The mediocre employees were cynical, resentful, and scared. Yet the kind of things he would need to do to raise the engagement scores among the mediocre—tamping back changes, accepting excuses for lackluster results, stop pushing for so much individual capability improvement, and ensuring promotion was based on seniority rather than merit—are precisely the kinds of things that cause excellent people to disengage and ultimately drive them away.

Engagement of employees depends just as much on who you lead, not just how you lead. Unfortunately, engagement surveys weigh all respondents as equal. But it is the excellent employees who ought to be weighted the most.

Engagement of employees depends just as much on who you lead, not just how you lead. Click To Tweet

Engagement surveys have become so ubiquitous that you are probably subject to one yourself. The most talented leaders I know don’t need engagement surveys to tell them the degree of engagement in their organizations. Instead, they walk the floor. They observe behavior. They talk with customers. They talk with their people at all levels. They take engagement surveys with a grain of salt, and so should you. Never allow a survey or an HR department dictate to you about how you should lead. Leadership is in your wheelhouse, not theirs.


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