It's Time We Had a Conversation About Engagement Surveys

It’s time we had an honest conversation about one of our greatest corporate rituals, the engagement survey.

I once sat in a training class where the instructor gathered engagement survey data from participants via their phones at the end of the session. As the results poured in from phones to the presentation screen, they were very positive. The numbers bounced across in real time, 4.5...4.7...4.3 and the occasional dissenter gave it a 3.5 to which everyone gasped and looked around to see if they could identify who the asshole was.

At the same time, the conversation at my table turned to how much a waste of time the group felt the training was. The five people around me were torn between flat-out hating it and not caring enough to hate it. The group quietly trolled the session as the speaker was watching a different story play out publicly on the screen, one of 4.5 star success.

This is a symptom of an obvious illness, yet one organizations struggle to acknowledge.

Employees aren’t comfortable giving honest responses to surveys at work and your results are vanilla because of it.

Let’s look at the most common human dynamics affecting the employee survey experience.


I once viewed a survey that assured me was confidential, then immediately required me to input my name and address to complete. It’s not hard to see the dissonance in message here. Even when surveys are legitimately managed by a third party and handled carefully, trust is low. Employees don’t know where the results go, how they are viewed, and who has access to them. As a result, employees don’t feel they can be honest out of fear of retribution.

Many surveys are also grouped by teams. If a leader has a small team of 4, it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to identify which employees correspond to each comment. A decent employee with legitimate feedback won’t take a chance at being outed. It’s safer to just keep the comments to something mundane like “...wish we had a coffee maker.”


Employees are quick to notice when surveys don’t actually lead to changes in their own experience. The more feedback is met with explanation instead of action, the more employees will begin to view the survey as a frivolous necessity like compliance or performance reviews. If an employee feels the feedback doesn’t have a result, what’s the point of investing thought into the survey? How do you spot apathy clues in your own organization? Ridiculously high scores are a start.

A Culture of Positivity

One of the greatest tools companies have developed to keep employees motivated is the idea of “a culture of positivity”. Negative employees are coached and eliminated quickly. But sometimes negative attitudes aren’t a sign of crappy employees, but rather symptoms of a serious employee experience issue. A rabid culture of positivity where no one complains can mask genuine concern and frustration from good workers. There will always be people who complain, but if you drown them out, you’ll likely dissolve any chance of identifying when good employees are genuinely struggling to engage.

Even when good employees take a chance and share honest feedback, a culture of positivity puts the ownership back on the employees. If you’re frustrated, it’s your fault.

I'm not suggesting surveys aren't useful. They can be. But somehow they've become the only research method for organizations. Aside from being subverted by complex human behaviors, they're also not great at telling you how to fix things. So what’s the remedy for vanilla survey results?  How do we return to a more well-rounded research philosophy that can drive meaningful change?

Get out of the office and start listening. 

It sounds easy, but as will explore in a future post, it’s something easier to forget.