Stop Asking These Questions On Your Employee Engagement Survey

This article originally appeared on Forbes by Mark Murphy, Founder of Leadership IQ

If your organization conducts employee engagement surveys, there’s something you really need to know: Never ask a question you don’t know how to fix. Sounds simple, right? Well, some of the most common engagement survey questions violate this simple rule (and one of your survey questions might be on this list).

Every survey question you ask implies a promise that you’re going to take action based on the answer you get. And if you break that promise, things will get ugly. (Here’s an experiment: Tonight at home, make some popcorn. Ask your spouse if they want some and when they say “yes,” just ignore them. Now multiply that by a few thousand and you’ll see what I’m talking about.)

If you don’t know exactly what actions will fix a situation, don’t ask a question about it until you do. Otherwise, you’re setting the stage for employees to doubt your leadership capabilities. It’ll be like: “Gee, the boss asked how we felt about XYZ, we all said lousy, and then they did nothing about it…”

Now everyone will say, “Well of course, Mark, I would never ask a question I can’t fix.” But some of the most common survey questions are some of the worst offenders of this rule:

  • I have great friends at work
  • I like my boss
  • My boss cares about me as a person
  • I trust my boss

These don’t seem like terrible questions, right? Well, they seem okay until you ask yourself, “How would I fix a low score on one of these questions?”

Let’s say you get low scores on those questions. Obviously, you now need to do something about it. Take a simple question like, “I trust my boss.” Do you know specifically what causes the typical employees to trust the boss? How about what specifically causes your unique employees to trust the boss?

You could instruct your managers to be more honest with their employees. Or share more good news. Or share more bad news. Or you could make them conduct a one-on-one conversation with each employee.

All of those sound pretty good, right? The problem is that you have no idea which one of those actions your employees were talking about when they said that they have trust issues with their boss. And because you don’t know which one is right, you’re probably going to guess wrong. And then the employees will feel like you’ve done nothing to address their specific issue.

Instead of a vague question, try asking a question like: “When I share my work problems with my direct leader, he/she responds constructively.” Now that’s a question that can be easily worked on. If you get a low score on that question, you could teach managers how to fix this in a day (and your employee engagement will skyrocket). But if you just ask vaguely about whether employees trust their boss, you could be wandering in the darkness for months.

This logic applies to every single question on your survey. Take another question like, “I have great friends at work.” Low scores on this question don’t teach you exactly what steps you need to take to fix the issue. Social networking might improve friendships, but so might more face-to-face time. I could show you regression analyses from companies where friendships are better when people have lots of autonomy (and are left alone). But I could also show you regression analyses from totally different companies where friendships are better when employees have lots of face-to-face teamwork and collaboration. 

Employee Engagement SurveyWebinar Recording:
The Deadly Sins of Employee Engagement

How can you possibly know what improvement actions you’re supposed to take based on a vague question about whether people have great friends at work? And if you don’t know exactly what actions you need to take to build better friendships, you shouldn’t ask the question. If you ask a question, and you don’t do anything with the answer, you’re breaking a promise to your employees. And that will really make them angry.

To judge how effective your current employee survey really is, take a good look at every question on the survey, and ask, “Do I know exactly what actions will fix this issue?” It’s not good enough to be able to guess what might work; you have to know with complete certainty what you will do. If you don’t have a definitive answer, the survey question could cause you real trouble and needs to be dropped.


Mark Murphy is the founder of Leadership IQ, a New York Times bestselling author, a sought-after speaker, and he also teaches a series of weekly webinars for leaders.

Posted by Mark Murphy on 30 June, 2016 Employee Engagement, Forbes | 0 comments
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