How employee engagement surveys kill culture

This article was originally published on Fast Company. It has been edited slightly.

It only takes one engagement survey to destroy the company culture you’ve worked years to create.

I’ve seen this pattern happen at too many organizations–including ones where I’ve been on the payroll. Leadership sets out with the best intentions: to increase happiness, well-being, and inclusion at work. They know that the best place to start is to ask employees for feedback on what’s going well and what needs attention.

And then they make a fatal mistake. 

They pour countless hours and millions of dollars into an engagement survey that utterly fails to measure what actually matters. They ask employees to spend precious time giving feedback, costing even more. After this massive investment, at best, leaders see charts and cross-cuts that only raise new concerns. These leaders are stuck–unable to take action, and powerless to make change on the things their people care about the most.

This paralysis may seem inconsequential. But it is destroying your company’s culture one question at a time. By asking someone for their opinion–whether it’s about work or what they’d like for dinner–you imply that you care about it, and create an expectation that you’ll do something based on what they have to say. At the very least, when you ask for feedback, you make an implicit promise to acknowledge it.

When you don’t act on what your people have told you are the most important issues they face, your company’s culture doesn’t just stay the same. It gets much, much worse. Futility turns to apathy and resentment. Why speak up if it won’t make a difference? Why invest in an organization that dismisses you? The engagement survey, meant to improve your culture, has instead destroyed morale and motivation.

I see this now with companies we talk to at Humu. Employees, asked to speak up, don’t feel heard. They feel hurt. And this industry standard of silence and inaction breeds dangerous resentment. By failing to make any changes, leaders squander huge budgets and worse: They actively signal to employees that their time isn’t valued and their feedback is worthless.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. At Humu, we’ve built a solution that automates action on a large scale, but companies of every size can make simple tweaks to the way they think about measuring–and making changes on–engagement today, that will benefit everyone tomorrow.

Measure what matters

The majority of employee experience or engagement surveys I’ve experienced, whether built in-house or from a vendor, become a laundry list of questions. Every leader has a pet initiative to measure, making the survey bloated and impossible to act on. When deciding on survey items (or eliminating others), ask yourself: What would we do immediately if this item scored low? If it’s not actionable, it’s not measuring something that matters.

Close the loop and commit

When your people take time to give feedback, thank them for it–right away. Leaders who acknowledge the value of their team’s responses, share the findings, and, most importantly, commit to taking action, make employees feel seen and satisfied. What’s more, this commitment becomes a forcing function for management to actually do something. Which brings me to my next point.

Do something—anything

Take action on your team’s feedback, and if your survey delivers results broken down by manager, ask them to do the same. Every time you make a change, talk about it–at company all-hands, at team meetings, by poster, email, or carrier pigeon. Let your employees know that you heard what they said and are doing something about it. Don’t want to focus on the negative? Celebrate what’s good first–and then tell people what you’ve improved.

Make feedback as essential oxygen

Don’t let surveys become the only place where employees can give valuable feedback. Encourage employees to suggest solutions to problems as they arise, and ask managers to do the same. Invite questions during all-hands, foster open discussion in team meetings, and ask specific questions. (“What two changes would make it easier for you to do a great job?”) Wherever the feedback comes from, the power lies in connecting any action taken back to its source.

Is your organization following these rules? If not, you’re at risk of falling into the trap of inaction. Bring leadership together to reflect on how you can better create a culture in which your employees feel heard and valued–and ensure that your engagement efforts don’t destroy the culture you’ve spent years building.

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