If This Is How You’re Doing Employee Engagement, You’re Doing It All Wrong

Originally published on entrepreneur.com

With the almost incessant buzz around the term “employee engagement” over the past few years, everyone knows how important it is for employees to feel a deep connection to the work they do. We all care — and are all trying to do it well — but the methods haven’t come close to keeping up with the buzz.

Why?

While many businesses rely on employee satisfaction surveys to signal how likely staff members are to stay, these so-called indicators of “engagement” are far from the end-all, be-all they’re chalked up to be. Instead, it’s important to cut through the buzz to break down why these surveys are only the starting point of fostering engagement — it’s what employers do beyond them that counts.

The existing limitations of surveys

It’s not that employee engagement surveys are useless — you may have seen firsthand how well-designed surveys can help predict behavior, diagnose culture issues, provide a forum for feedback and even plant expectations for behavioral changes you’d like to see.

However, it’s also really easy to gather bad data with these surveys. People may lie for job security or because they don’t trust that their responses are truly anonymous. Some may be too disengaged from the culture to have any incentive to participate — and those are some of the people you need to hear from most. Others simply may not believe that their voices will make an impact (the same reason many people don’t vote), either because they feel lost in a sea of people or because they don’t believe anyone will actually pay attention to the results.

Most surveys also don’t happen consistently enough to allow you to assess how people are doing on a continuous basis. Ask me how I feel on a Monday, and it could be completely different from how I feel the following Monday (or even later that week). You need more data points to establish a baseline rather than a snapshot of how people felt on a given day.

But let’s say you do design a clear survey and people respond and they answer honestly: Most surveys still don’t provide a clear sense of “what’s next.” For example, while Kansas State University research shows the benefits of having a friend at work, if your survey came back saying that many of your employees didn’t have friends in the office, would you know how to help them make a change? Probably not.

As a result, many well-intended solutions end up feeling like superficial fixes to a problem that wasn’t fully heard — there’s a sharp line between what you do and what your employees see. For example, many employers may think that providing free lunch paints a picture of friendship: Friends get lunch together, and now our employees do, too. But this solution falls short of addressing the root of what employees really want and need and, in reality, often ends up looking like employees with identical sandwiches at their desks. It’s easy to think that perks such as ping-pong tables, company T-shirts, holiday potlucks and quarterly lunch-and-learns take care of the commitment needed from us as leaders, but they don’t.

In other words, if you start with the aim of pacifying — not listening — you’re thinking about workplace engagement in all the wrong ways. Rather than rush to throw on a few quick Band-Aids, leaders need to stop and determine whether the problem is a paper cut or a broken leg. Similarly, the process of information gathering shouldn’t stop with a survey — it should be just the beginning. If you’re not taking the time to both listen to your employees and provide opportunities for your employees to listen to each other, there’s a whole lot you’re going to miss.

Changing how you listen

That sounds great and all, but how do you do it? As the founder and CEO of a platform for workplace engagement, I’ve spent a great deal of time talking with HR executives and employees to understand how people build communities and what leaders can do to foster those connections. From these interactions, here are two easy starting points to begin listening to your employees so you can implement changes that will actually matter.

First, paired with employee surveys, regular one-on-ones with your employees are an excellent tool to both diagnose your company’s culture and provide an opportunity to get to know your employees. By scheduling them frequently enough to make people feel heard, you also build in time to react to things in a meaningful amount of time. These meetings should take place across your entire organization, at every level of management. And it’s crucial to ensure that you’re asking the right questions — if you aren’t receptive to feedback, people won’t give it. Just by gathering this info, your employees will feel that someone cares and is encouraging their growth, both of which Gallup has linked to deeper engagement.

Second, to create moments when employees can listen to each other, foster opportunities for them to connect around the things they care about most. Throw real support behind employee groups, whether they’re ERGs, employee-interest groups or culture committees. With time, money and tools, you can enable them to create programming and connect with others around what they find meaningful. This also leads to strong subcultures that not only help you gauge the current culture, but also go a long way toward making people feel more connected.

If you do nothing else today, start with this one thing: Take the time to listen to your employees so you can understand what they really need, not what you think they want. And if at the end of all that, you still end up with seas of ping-pong tables, at least you can be confident it’s money well spent.

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