Employee engagement: are surveys the best way to measure it?

Employee engagement: are surveys the best way to measure it?

Employee engagement matters. There have been numerous articles, case studies and research to show us this is the case. But what is the best way to measure engagement?  Are yearly surveys outdated and no longer helpful or still an important part of the picture?

The term employee engagement came into being in the early 1990s when William A. Kahn first used the phrase in an article in the Academy of Management Journal. Employee engagement surveys pioneered by organisations such as Gallup started to appear. By the time the Engage for Success taskforce was set up in 2009 the concept had become familiar to many organisations.

Research has clearly shown that engagement affects the bottom line. The Engaging for Success report showed that companies with an engaged workforce experienced 19% growth in operating income over a twelve month period. Similarly, those with engagement scores in the top quartile achieved 12% higher customer advocacy than those in the bottom quartile.

Most leaders would agree that engagement is an important part of their people strategy. What they agree on to a much lesser extent is how to measure engagement to get meaningful results. There are many who argue that in today’s fast paced environment yearly engagement surveys no longer serve their purpose.

The problem with surveys

There are certainly issues with the sole use of surveys to measure engagement:

  • A yearly engagement survey can only give a picture of how employees feel at a certain point in time.  Engagement is not static but will go up and down.  This is even more the case in a rapid period of change. The Covid-19 pandemic is one example of how change can rapidly affect the workforce. Remote working and the pressure of balancing work and family life along with worries about finance and health combine to impact engagement levels. It makes no sense in this scenario to leave measuring engagement to the yearly survey.
  • There are so many definitions of engagement that it is hard to know exactly what to measure. Many organisations end up measuring job satisfaction instead of engagement. Another mistake they make is to take an off the shelf engagement survey and use it without really thinking through whether it fits.
  • Badly designed surveys may only tell you what’s wrong and not why. If your engagement survey contains questions that are not expertly designed you won’t get answers that are of any use. It will do you no good to know that communication is poor if the survey doesn’t also tell you what aspect of communication is causing the problem.
  • Many organisations fail to do anything to act on feedback or they act on it in a top down fashion. Leaders get the results of their survey, interpret what they mean and decide on solutions. It is possible that they may be successful in addressing the issues but by no means certain. They also lose an opportunity to increase engagement levels by involving employees in designing solutions that meet their needs.
Should I ditch my yearly survey?

In a word, no!  Surveys have a lot to offer as a way of measuring engagement. A well designed survey will give a snapshot of how an organisation is doing. It serves as an opportunity for employees to feedback on what its like to work there and to voice concerns. Repeating the same survey on a yearly basis will provide an internal benchmark for how an organisation is performing. Although surveys should never be used as the sole method of measuring engagement they are one important part of the picture.

The best way to use a survey

Three important considerations to bear in mind when using surveys:

  • Make sure it is well designed.  Experts agree that employee engagement is about attitudes and feelings towards work as well as behaviours. Most engagement surveys contain concepts such as meaningful work, opportunities for growth and connection to the organisation’s purpose. Outside that it is crucial to think about what engagement means to your organisation.  If employee engagement is the environment that causes people to give of their best at work every day what does that mean to you?
  • Don’t just use surveys once a year. Many organisations now combine yearly surveys with pulse surveys. These much shorter surveys are designed as a temperature check. They are particularly useful when organisations are going through periods of change, whether planned or, like the Covid-19 pandemic, unexpected.
  • Act on the results.  Putting in place an engagement survey then not acting on it is far more damaging than not doing it at all.  Think about how best to communicate the results in an open and honest manner. Involve people at all levels in the organisation to design solutions that address the issues that have been raised.
Learn how to listen and teach your managers to do the same

Yearly engagement surveys alone will not give you an accurate picture of what is going on at the heart of an organisation.

We do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.

Stephen Covey

Many leaders say they are good listeners but true listening is a rare skill that has to be learned. We think quicker than we talk (500 vs 125 words a minute) so it is very easy for us to be distracted. By the time we come back to what the other person is saying we’ve lost the thread.

We often pay attention to things that confirm what we already think or believe (confirmatory bias). This is even more the case when we have a strongly negative reaction to something. These ‘deafspots’ put us at risk of failing to keep an open mind.

All of these problems mean that even leaders who intend to listen may not actually do so effectively. Many believe they are able to listen without the use of tools like surveys. In reality, true listening is much harder to achieve than we think. For large or hierarchical organisations this can be even more of a problem. If employees are trying to tell their manager about a concern but the manager doesn’t know how to listen effectively they won’t be heard. Likewise if CEOs do not know how to listen to their executive team they can miss what is really going on.

To learn to listen we must actively work on it and we must teach our managers to do the same. Don’t ditch your yearly engagement survey just yet but rather learn to listen in other ways as well. Then you will be able to measure engagement in a way that is meaningful and helps you to understand how to transform your organisation.


We are experts in designing bespoke engagement surveys and other ways to measure engagement. If you would like to chat about how we can help please get in touch.

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