How to improve your employee engagement survey

Talia Bailey
Product marketing manager

Taking action on employee engagement survey results is one of the most effective ways to earn trust, build belonging, and drive performance.

But only 8% of workers strongly agree that their organization makes positive changes based on employee engagement surveys. And our research shows that when people fail to see any changes made based on feedback they’ve shared with leadership, they become 1.7x more likely to start looking for another job.

When it comes to employee engagement surveys, leadership almost always sets out with the best intentions: to improve retention, performance, and the employee experience. They know that the best place to start is to ask their people for feedback on what’s going well and what needs attention.

But then things take a turn because employee engagement surveys often fail to measure what matters. Instead of getting a clear picture of the specific behavioral gaps that exist within their organization, leaders see complex charts and cross-cuts that only raise new concerns. These leaders are stuck–unable to take action, and powerless to drive change based on employee engagement survey results.

We recently asked Chief Human Resources Officers (CHROs) at the Fortune 500 what they see as the biggest barriers to driving change based on employee engagement survey data.

CHROs also told us that during times of uncertainty, competing priorities and a lack of clear, actionable feedback become bigger barriers to acting on employee engagement survey results.

That’s why effective employee engagement surveys are designed to make things simple by pinpointing a few, mission-critical areas on which people should act. In other words, they solicit actionable feedback and output results that make it clear what leaders should focus on next.

At Humu, we use behavioral science best practices to create employee engagement surveys that do exactly that. And we know our approach works because, across organizations, we often see that scores often go down the second time employees take our survey. Our algorithms also detect statistical signals that demonstrate that even if everyone claimed to feel pretty good about a specific area the first time they took the survey, they are now rating it more carefully.

How can a decrease in employee engagement scores be a good thing? We find that it’s because people have started to trust us enough to tell us the truth. In fact, on the same surveys, we see scores on whether or not employees feel their feedback has been addressed increase by 10%.

This also bears out in written comments along the lines of, “I wasn’t totally honest the first time around, because I was worried my responses would be used against me,” or even, “I didn’t respond to the first survey because I didn’t believe change was possible at the time.” 

When employees don’t believe that their feedback will lead to positive change, they don’t take engagement surveys seriously. Why speak up if it won’t make a difference? Why invest in an organization that dismisses you? 

Based on our approach, here are four changes leaders can make to the way they think about measuring–and taking action on–employee engagement survey results today, that will benefit everyone tomorrow.

Measure what matters (by asking the right questions)

The majority of employee engagement surveys, whether built in-house or from a vendor, become a laundry list of questions that are not designed to surface actionable insights.

For example, some employee engagement surveys ask, “Do you have a best friend at work?” But what are leaders supposed to do if most people say, “No, I don’t”? It’s impossible for an organization to suddenly give every employee a best friend.

That’s why effective employee engagement survey questions are based on behavioral science best practices. Take our prompts, which are designed to surface clear feedback that leaders, managers, and even employees themselves can act on—and to measure important changes in how people feel about a specific aspect of an organization's culture.

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. 

Ensure that managers share and discuss survey results with their teams. It's often helpful to give them suggested talking points and guidance on how to address issues surfaced by the survey. And remind them that they don't need to have all the answers right away. It's okay to say, "I hear that this is a concern, and I'm going to look into how I can take action and would love suggestions for what we can do together as a team to improve."

Make taking action easy for managers

Managers, especially in remote and hybrid environments, determine both how employees feel and what they do in their day-to-day. Managers clarify roles and responsibilities (or leave them murky), facilitate connections between members of their team and the broader organization  (or let them become siloed), and inspire their people with a sense of purpose (or leave them unmotivated and disengaged).

In our analyses, managers are consistently a top driver of employee motivation and engagement. People who feel their managers offer them growth opportunities are 7.9x more likely to stay at their organization, and those who report learning new skills in the flow of their work are 4.8x more likely to stay. Gallup finds that it takes more than a 20% pay raise to lure most employees away from a manager who engages them, but almost nothing to poach a disengaged worker. 

We also found that people who notice their manager taking action on soft skills-focused nudges from Humu are 16% happier than their peers. In another analysis of 32,000 employees across industries, we saw employees hired post-pandemic (i.e. between April and June of 2020) were less satisfied at work than their peers who were brought on pre-pandemic. However, post-pandemic hires who observed their manager take action were just as happy as their peers. In other words, when managers make noticeable efforts to support their employees, their employees feel better about the company, the team, and their work.

Communicate and celebrate behavior change

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.

Encourage managers to do the same. If they see someone making positive changes, suggest that they immediately recognize that employee's efforts. For example, if an employee creates space in a meeting for everyone to have a chance to chime in, they might say, "Emi, thanks for ensuring that we have an equitable team discussion. It's really important that we feel comfortable sharing ideas, and you helped us do that today. I really appreciate it."

Finally, 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.

Want to learn more about how we've automated turning survey insights into action at every level? Request a demo to get more detail on our science-backed survey design and nudges.