Engagement surveys, done badly, can be disengaging for employees. If your response rates are declining, if news of an approaching survey creates dread among employees or if informal company conversations don’t match up to survey results, your engagement survey may be part of the problem.

Soteres Consulting has helped communicate engagement survey results at dozens of organizations. This is the third of three blogs examining some common engagement survey challenges, specifically:

Last week I talked about how overwhelmed employees can warp engagement survey action planning and results. Today’s topic: Employees don’t always say what they think.

Reasons not to do what we don’t want to do
My daughter’s bedtime ritual was pretty standard. As I tucked her in, she would go through a list of reasons for me to stay: “Will you read me another story? I’m thirsty … I’m hungry … Can you turn on the light in the closet? There’s something under my bed … I’m scared … Just five more minutes!”

She didn’t want to go to bed, and would say anything to achieve that end. Over time, she learned that the line that never worked was, “I don’t want to go to bed.” The line that worked best was, “My tummy hurts.” You can guess what she used most often.

When it comes to change, people rarely say directly what they mean
Adults are not much different. Nobody likes change. We look for ways to avoid it, and when that doesn’t work, we actively resist it. We rarely say directly what we want because it rarely works. Instead, we say other things that we hope will accomplish our desires: Not, “I don’t want to go to bed,” but, “My tummy hurts.”

So when an engagement survey presents the potential threat of change and the risks that come with candor, employees in a stressed environment don’t say what they mean because they don’t want to say, “I don’t want more work,” or “I don’t respect my boss.”

So they say other things, comments that have the additional virtue of stalling productive efforts while you chase false leads to dead ends. You’ve likely heard many of them during your own surveys: “I didn’t see the emails,” “I didn’t know the deadline,” “I couldn’t get the link to work,” “You sent it at my busiest time of year.”

And you’ve heard them from leaders after the surveys, but before you communicate to employees: “I need to see my specific results before we can do anything,” “How do you validate the responses?” “The wording on these two questions was confusing …

It’s the equivalent of, “My tummy hurts.” The more you react, the more you reinforce such comments as effective resistance tactics, and the more you will hear them.

Actions after the survey speak louder than words
Why are stalls like these damaging? Because the most important communication of an engagement survey is what you do.

  1. Communicate clearly, administer cleanly
  2. Report results briskly and thank employees for their feedback
  3. Act, show demonstrable, leader-driven positive results
  4. Communicate those results quickly and often, create champions, rinse and repeat

Behaviors that slow down these steps are almost always driven by the desire to avoid or resist change. Do not get caught in that web! There is no monster outside the window. So why are you peering into the dark?

Communications solution
The messaging of an engagement survey is important, especially if prior surveys have been ignored by leadership or perceived as ineffective by employees. Don’t expect employee candor if you cannot present an honest appraisal of the organization’s past performance on engagement surveys.

Communicate the confidentiality of responses but not to excess. Repeated emphasis will not persuade your skeptics, and it starts to sound like you are protesting too much.

Soteres Consulting also recommends
Help your organization make itself accountable for the timely communication of results. Before administering an engagement survey, share your communication timeline with frontline managers. Crisp accountability will encourage a similar tone and approach from your audience.

Too often organizations peg the success of their survey on participation rates, as opposed to the quality of the data. It’s easy to understand why — participation rates are easy to measure. Yet focusing too much on an arbitrary participation number may distort the quality of your responses. When your messaging goads employees, you signal that “just doing it” is the priority. That will not inspire quality results and may in fact warp them.

If you find that the same communication plan is yielding a lower response rate this year, you may be tempted to bring out heavy support. You might, for example, ask leaders or HR business partners to do more than they have done in prior years to help get out the vote.

The intention is good. You want to accomplish the previous year’s response rate. But the consequences are not so good. Lower responses rates are critical pieces of information by themselves. If a whole division is not responding, or a team under one particular leader, the silence is louder than the misrepresentations you will get if you strong-arm people into completing the survey.

Manage the survey and action planning to the scope that the survey was administered
If it was a corporate engagement survey, address topics and actions at corporate levels. Getting more granular tends to stack corporate actions on top of divisional actions and so forth — another way to overwhelm employees by creating activity with reduced hope for accountability and productive outcomes.

Always address substantive feedback from managers and employees. In fact, look for opportunities to embrace constructive input when the ideas are good.

That said, do not chase down minor complaints about the survey itself or the granular particulars of the results. For these small gripes, it’s OK to craft a template answer that acknowledges and respects the sender without committing to additional action.