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Fixing employee engagement surveys

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According to Mark Murphy, founder of Leadership IQ and a NYTimes bestselling author, organizations often make a few big mistakes on employee engagement surveys.

First, they send surveys because they want to know what employees are thinking but then don’t actually do anything with the results.

And second, they ask questions they don’t know how to fix. For example, a question might ask, “Do you trust your boss?” But how do you fix that if it turns out that employees don’t really trust their boss?

“You might say, ‘Well, there’s a hundred things you could do to improve trust,” Murphy says. “You could share information more freely; you could have the leader value the employees more; you could bring them on a ropes course and get to know them personally.”

And those things might work, but that’s not what the question asked, Murphy says. Instead, questions need to be more focused, such as: “When you share work problems with your leader, do they respond constructively?” That’s a productive question, Murphy says, because research has shown that how leaders respond to problems is a big driver of trust.

Moreover, Murphy has found that employee engagement surveys too often assume that engagement is driven from the top down, i.e. that leaders must drive engagement. But while leaders may play a role in fostering engagement among their employees, Murphy’s research has shown that engagement depends more on an individual employee’s mindset. Employees who are more optimistic, for example, tend to be more engaged. In fact, Murphy has identified 18 “outlooks” that contribute to employee engagement, including internal locus of control (the belief that you control your own success or failure); self-efficacy; self-forgiveness; emotional awareness; resilience; and others.

And so, employee engagement surveys would do well to include questions that gauge employees’ level of these attributes. HR and L&D leaders can then use that data to design courses aimed at improving employee optimism, resilience, locus on control, and so on.

For companies that take employee engagement seriously and see value in raising engagement across the organization, Murphy offers two bits of advice. First, review every question on your employee engagement survey and make sure that you have a specific action to address the issue the question ask about. If you don’t have a definitive action, drop the question.

And second, if you don’t have them already, add several questions along the lines of, “When I experience failure, I bounce back quickly,” or “When I make a mistake, I’m able to forgive myself.”

“When you add those questions and cut the data,” Murphy says, “You’ll be able to see by job role, by department, by age, you’ll be able to narrow in and see, ‘Is it our young people that are less optimistic than our older employees … is it Department A that has a problem with resilience compared to Department B?’ Really, all you need as a starting point is just adding a few of those questions.”

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