Stop Doing Engagement Surveys

May 27, 2021
May 27, 2021 Jamie Notter

When we set out last year to write The Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement, our first task was to see what others were writing about the topic. And according to just about every article and blog post out there, engagement is “hard to define,” and there are as many definitions out there as there are consultants—and that’s a lot.

Too hard to define? Challenge accepted! I have always heard the same thing about culture, yet I managed to come up with a definition that fits on one slide in my presentations. In general, I think the “it’s too hard to define” mantra is just people trying to avoid tackling something that is complex.

And among those who did wade into the complexity and attempt a definition, I found that they all seemed to center on a single core concept: a strong “emotional connection or commitment” to an organization.

This makes intuitive sense. Most people know what it’s like to be deeply engaged at work, either through personal experience (hopefully) or by observing colleagues, and it’s true—that emotional connection and commitment is there. But here’s the problem with this definition: by making it about an emotional connection, you just made employee engagement something that I, as a leader or manager, can do absolutely nothing to improve. If engagement is part of your inner, emotional experience, then it belongs to you. I can’t make you love me. I am sure this path was not our intention, but we, in fact, have defined engagement in a way that makes it REALLY difficult to improve. Of course, maybe that’s why the engagement numbers have been flat for decades.

In our book, we add a critical missing piece to the definition:

Employee engagement is the level of emotional commitment and connection employees have to an organization, which is driven by how successful they are at work, both personally and organizationally.

You will see higher engagement when you create an organization where your people can be deeply successful, in both personal and organizational terms. Yes, there’s an emotional component, but that is not the cause of engagement, that is simply the manifestation of engagement.

So you can stop your engagement surveys now. Seriously, don’t renew the contract. I can tell you right now, some of your people are going to be unhappy about a bunch of stuff. And in other areas, people will feel really good and approve of things, and you’ll get nice, green scores. Congratulations.

The more important question is, what does any of that tell you about what’s getting in the way of people being successful? Fixing what your employees are unhappy about is not always the path to more success, and until you address the underlying cultural patterns, you won’t see movement on the engagement scores.

In our book, we provide a concrete playbook model for finding and fixing the culture patterns that are getting in the way of success. This will take time and effort, but it’s not too complex, and it’s not hard to define. It just needs you to get moving!

Jamie Notter

Jamie is an author and growth strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders integrate culture, strategy, and execution to achieve breakthrough performance and impact. He brings twenty-five years of experience to his work designing culture-driven businesses, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is also the co-author of three books—Humanize, When Millennials Take Over, and The Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement—and holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.