Employee Engagement Surveys: Don't Ask Employees If They're 'Satisfied'
This article originally appeared on Forbes by Mark Murphy, Founder of Leadership IQ
An employee is truly “engaged” when they are first, giving 100% effort, second, utilizing their full talent potential, and third, working to develop their talent set even further. When employees are meeting all three criteria, their emotional states will also be characterized by a deep sense of fulfillment, pride and even excitement.
Satisfaction, a concept often measured by questions like “Overall, I am satisfied with company ABC” or “I am satisfied with my job” is a significantly weaker concept. In fact, it’s too weak to help you improve employee engagement.
Let’s imagine you score a perfect 7 out of 7 on this “satisfied” question. What does that really tell you? It says, “Absolutely, I am satisfied.” It does not say “I give 100% effort to this organization in order to deliver exceptional service to our customers.” It does not say, “I will drip blood, sweat and tears to achieve this extraordinary goal in order to feel the addictive swell of pride and achievement.”
There’s an online quiz called How Good Is Your Employee Engagement Survey? and one of the questions asks “Do any of your survey questions use the word ‘satisfied’?” I’ve surveyed thousands of organizations on this issue and around 50% of surveys use at least one or two “satisfied” questions. And that’s a real problem.
The definition of the word satisfied is typically something like “content.” Contentment is nice, but contentment conjures images of relaxing on a beach on a sunny summer day sipping lemonade. Ah yes, that’s a nice feeling. In fact, it’s a nice feeling to have on a long weekend.
But is that the feeling your CEO wants every employee to have when they come to work? Do you hire star employees so they can sit around feeling content, sipping lemonade on a summer day? Of course not. Don’t you hire people so they can come into work bursting with energy to go out and give 100% effort?
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The real question is whether you want a workplace where satisfied people sip lemonade or one where high-achievers give 100% effort to achieve extraordinary goals. Practically every CEO I’ve ever talked to wants the latter workplace. Being satisfied (aka content) is a mediocre feeling when compared with the deep fulfillment that comes from giving 100% effort.
If you go out to dinner, and the manager comes by to ask if you’re “satisfied,” you could easily say, “Yes,” and still never return to that restaurant. You’ll be “satisfied” if the food and service are good. But don’t most customers want their dinner to be more than satisfactory? Don’t they want their experience to be extraordinary? (Ample research suggests they do.)
Unfortunately, the restaurant manager didn’t ask if dinner was extraordinary, he only asked if it was satisfactory. Perhaps you said yes because the food was delivered accurately and efficiently, but that doesn’t tell the manager you won’t be coming back again, or why. He only knows his staff didn’t mess things up so horribly that you might ask for a refund. If he had asked if you were “blown away,” he’d have gotten a very different answer; one that would actually give him valuable feedback.
When organizations ask employees if they’re satisfied, they’re only asking whether things are so bad that employees might go running for the exits. They still have no idea if they might quit for a different organization that’s aiming for greatness. All they know is that things aren’t awful; employees are satisfied.
If you want to know if employees will shout from the rooftops what a great employer you are, and whether they’re committed to giving 100% (both factors that constitute engagement), you have to ask.
For example, I use the survey question “Working here inspires me to give my best effort.” That’s a question that goes far beyond satisfaction and contentment and gets to the much deeper issue of being inspired to give your best effort.
But asking a question about giving your best effort sometimes scares executives; you might get lower scores than on a question like “I am satisfied with my job.” The reason that 50% of companies ask ‘satisfied’ questions is that it’s really easy to get high scores. The question is so weak that it’s a very easy one to ace. And if you conduct employee engagement surveys to show off your high scores, then you probably want to ask really easy questions.
But if you really want to know whether your employees are inspired to give their best effort, you have to risk getting some lower scores in order to discover the truth.
When I go to the doctor for my physical, I have to decide whether my goal is to get the truth or just hear good news. If my goal is just hearing good news than I should probably avoid the blood test because I’m likely to discover that my cholesterol is too high. But if my goal is getting the truth, so I can actually improve my health, then I need to accept that I may get some less-than-ideal results (at least initially). Armed with the truth, however, I can now take specific steps to correct any issues and achieve significantly better health in the future.
That’s the bottom line with surveys; do you want passive employees sipping lemonade or do you want high-achievers inspired to give their best effort? If we want inspired high-achievers, we can’t ask weak survey questions about satisfaction. We must instead ask truthful questions (e.g. working here inspires me to give my best effort).