6 Things Psychology Tells Us About Designing Engagement Surveys

Most workers are disengaged at work, but how leaders design surveys to turn that around plays a big role in a company’s success.
engagement surveys

You’ve probably heard the statistic: Just one-third of American employees are engaged at work.

What’s more, this rate of engagement has been relatively flat since the turn of century, according to Gallup’s annual surveys, and it’s costing employers. In its 2017 “State of the American Workplace report, Gallup estimated disengaged employees cost companies up to $605 billion in lost productivity each year. The report urges leaders to “take employee engagement from a survey to a cultural pillar that improves performance.” But how are we supposed to do that?

I’ve learned that turning a questionnaire into business impact is less about figuring out if your employees are engaged and more about figuring out why they aren’t — and how you can continue to improve their experience. If you want to design a better employment engagement strategy, then you need to collect data you can regularly and consistently act upon.

What Data Do You Need?

The concept of “organizational climate,” based on psychological insights into human motivation, provides a helpful formula for measuring engagement. The concept started with late psychologist David McClelland, who studied how patterns of behavior and feelings shaped employee experiences. Over the past 60 years, research shows that monitoring these feelings and patterns, which fall into six main elements, can help leaders improve engagement.

Here’s what a healthy climate looks like:

  1. Low Conformity: The existence of unnecessary obstacles to employee productivity. Do employees feel responsible for seemingly pointless processes and policies, such as sending a weekly summary of tasks to their middle-manager?
  2. High Ownership: A sense of empowerment, driven by leadership. Do employees feel like they have a stake in your organization’s success?
  3. High Standards: Defined individual and team responsibilities with stretch goals. Are goals communicated clearly? Do they also present a reasonable challenge for your employees?
  4. High Recognition: A healthy balance of positive and negative feedback. Do managers regularly communicate with employees when they’re doing well and point out how they could be doing better?
  5. High Clarity. An understanding of your current role and potential career trajectory. Are job descriptions clearly defined? Are there opportunities for growth and mobility — either laterally or horizontally — within your organization?
  6. High Team Spirit. Strong and supportive community. Do the people on your team have each other’s back through success and adversity?

If you use the above as a template for a survey, you’ll have more actionable data on how to improve engagement. And this is not the type of “engagement” that’s used interchangeably with employee happiness — truly engaged employees are not simply satisfied with their jobs, but fully invested in the organization’s success.

How to Turn Survey Analysis into Action

Unlike “culture,” which is rooted deeply in your company’s values, traditions and language, the elements of organizational climate can easily shift and are often different across teams. This is both promising and challenging. It’s easier to monitor and change, but must be monitored frequently and thoroughly.

This doesn’t mean the annual survey is dead — it just means you need to follow up. At the company I work for, we send a survey every year, followed by in-person focus groups and monthly mini questionnaires. Armed with historical data and a comprehensive understanding of company climate, you’ll be able to address gaps in engagement and anticipate trends. Let’s say junior-level employees consistently demonstrated low clarity after a year at your company. You could not only create a dedicated solution for these employees, but also proactively address future issues through better defined entry-level job descriptions and frequent career pathing conversations with new employees.

Your solutions to improving climate should be achievable and scalable: One great quarter won’t transform your business for the better. Instead, focus on consistently improving climate. According to a report from advisory firm Willis Towers Watson, companies with high and sustainable levels of engagement have operating margins up to three times higher than companies with unsustainable levels of engagement (low or high).

By building an engagement strategy based on the elements of organizational climate, you’ll naturally find yourself improving results at every turn. Most organizations sit back when things are going in a positive direction and wait until engagement rates plateau. But the best companies know that the secret to success is to recognize when you’re doing well, and then ask: “How can we do even better?”

Jeff Miller is senior director of talent management at Cornerstone OnDemand. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.