Employee Engagement Surveys – Not The Whole Story

I’m not against employee engagement surveys. I’m just not in favor or our over-reliance on them for an accurate picture of an organizational culture. Reading employee engagement surveys is like reading a newspaper or watching the news. It’s interesting, there’s an element of truth in them, but it’s not the whole picture. It’s more of a photograph, a small spectrum of what’s actually happening. Surveys turn your organization into a noun, while conversations make culture a verb, a living breathing entity. Surveys give you a sense of what’s going on, but you always have to go further if you want an accurate picture. Here are some suggestions for using surveys more effectively and appropriately:

  1. Don’t use surveys to abdicate leadership. While thorough surveys provide excellent data and get you started with a snapshot of your culture, don’t rely on surveys alone to do the job. You also have to get out of your office, wander around, and be in touch with people. Ask them how they’re doing and what they need. Then listen to what they say. If you use the excuse that “people aren’t honest with you when you do that,” that’s a good indication you haven’t been out of your office enough to build trust. To be committed to culture, leaders need to be out of their office about half of the time or they just aren’t leading.
  2. Shorten your surveys. People are getting surveyed out. I’ve seen employees answer low because they are angry about having to do so many surveys! Dr. Theresa M. Welbourne (www.eepulse.com) is designing employee engagement and 360 Feedback surveys that take three minutes to complete. Dr. Welborne believes that you can get pretty much all the information you need in about three minutes. She might just be on to something.
  3. You don’t have to survey everyone to get an accurate picture. Television ratings are not determined by calling every single person watching TV. Pick a good cross section of people to survey and give the rest a break. Switch it up so you aren’t surveying the same people every time.
  4. Don’t mistake climate for culture. Climate is how people feel about the organization and their work (what you get from an employee engagement survey). Culture is what causes them to feel that way. Employee engagement surveys may tell you what the climate is, but they don’t necessarily get to the culture. Every culture has both the “visible” culture and the “real” culture. The real culture is what people talk about when the boss isn’t there. If you want to find out about the real culture, don’t send surveys to your employees. Send surveys to your employees’ spouses or best friends. Culture is measured by what people talk about when they get home from work. Ideally, we want to build a level of trust so people would have the same conversation whether the boss is there on not. You can only get the real culture by getting into the cafeteria and the hallways and listening to what’s going on, and more importantly, why it’s going on.
  5. Never ask a question about something you don’t know how to fix and you aren’t prepared to fix. Every survey question implies a promise that you are going to take action based on the answers you get. And if you break that promise, things will get ugly. I like Mark Murphy’s (Leadership IQ) experiment as an example of how this works. Tonight at home, make some popcorn. Then ask your spouse if they want some and when they say “yes” just ignore them. Now multiply that by a few thousand and you’ll see what we’re talking about. Don’t use surveys to abdicate leadership accountabilities. You must live your values, and have a way to ensure that this happens at every level of your organization. Your actions as leaders define your culture more than your value statements do. Actions really do speak louder than words. The goal is to align your actions and your value statements. The more you connect with people and really listen to what they say in a variety of ways, the greater your chances of bringing your claim and your reality into alignment.
  6. Remember that culture is a shared responsibility. Culture isn’t something that you do for or to people. Culture is something you create together. We institutionally deny the fact that each of us – through our perceptions and our choices – is actually creating the culture that we so enjoy complaining about. Deciding that I have co-created the world around me – and therefore I am the one to step into healing it – is the ultimate act of accountability. Check out my website www.irvinestone.ca/assessments for an instrument that assesses both the manager’s and the employee’s responsibility for creating a workplace worth working in – using and adapting the Gallup Q12 Employee Engagement Survey.

Personal Leadership – A Culture of One

Operational accountabilities are about what has to be done in an organization. Leadership accountabilities, on the other hand, are about how the work gets done. You have to take both into consideration if you want to build a great culture. Culture defines the how.

It is important to regularly assess how your people are achieving operational results, and it is just as important to regularly assess your culture with a Culture Inventory:

  • Are people clear about the values that are espoused – the way we do the work?
  • Are there clearly defined behaviors attached to each of the values so that the expectations of the how are explicit?
  • Are there clearly defined promises between the manager and the employee about what both are agreeing to?
  • Are there clearly defined support agreements, so everyone feels supported?
  • Are there clearly defined consequences – both positive and negative?
  • Is the follow-through clear, so that the agreements remain current and remain useful?

Just as it is good for a regular Culture Inventory, is it important to take a Character Inventory – an assessment of our own personal way we are at work and in the world. Similar to how an organization has a culture – a way of doing things, individuals also have a way.

Much emphasis in organizations is put on the what, and this is true with individuals as well. How many people do you know emphasize the achievements in their life but don’t pay attention to the kind of person they are becoming in the pursuit of these achievements? A Character Inventory assesses the kind of person you are – how you are living your life.

If you want to attract others, you must be attractive. Strong character demands that you shift from being the best in the world to being the best for the world, to strive not for what you can get, but what you can give, to endeavor not for what you can have or what you can do, but for who you can be. A job title, the letters behind your name, the size of your office, or your income are not measures of human worth. No success by the world’s standards will ever be enough to compensate for a lack of strong character.

It’s an act of caring to pause every so often and take an inventory of your character.

  • How are you doing in areas such as compassion, reliability, honesty, courage, prudence, contribution, and maturity?
  • Are you one person in public and another in private?
  • Do you focus as much on what kind of a person you are in the world as much as on what you want to achieve in the world?

Like a business that takes regular stock of its inventory, this is a fact-finding process. There can be blind spots to seeing yourself, so get feedback from the most important people in your life. Being a good person precedes being a good leader in any capacity.

Here’s a list of actions that demonstrate strength of character. See how you measure up with this list, or take the time to write your own list:

Let go of what you want.

Prudence is the common sense – that unfortunately is not so common any more – to live with what you can do without, and the ability to find joy in what is here. Every so often it’s good to surrender something we want, but don’t need. In a world that confuses wants with needs, debt continues to rise as character continues to erode. Practice living below your means, not getting everything you want, and finding freedom in enjoying what you have.

Do something difficult every day.

“Do the hard stuff first,” my mother used to say. The earlier in the day you get the difficult work done, the better you’ll feel about yourself and the rest of your day will improve. Whether it’s having a difficult conversation, getting some exercise, or taking a risk, character is built on the foundation of overcoming the natural tendency to take the course of least resistance.

Clean up after yourself.

Something eats away at your character when you sit in your mess or leave your messes for someone else to look after. And if you really want to experience character, walk through a park close to where you live and clean up garbage left behind by someone else.

Look beyond yourself.

Character means choosing service over self-interest. Character grows in the soil of concern for others and the commitment to act on that concern. We can all find ways to make life better for someone less fortunate than ourselves.

Spend less than you earn.

This is truly one of the best character habits you can develop. Spending less than you earn, whether it’s reflected in your home, your car, or the stuff you buy, is another version of prudence. The space you create in your life by doing so will give you freedom, renewed worth, and contentment that money will never buy.

Practice gratitude.

Gratitude is integral to strong character. It’s the antidote to the entitlement that contaminates character. Be an appreciator, rather than a depreciator, of everything that shows up in your life, including opportunities disguised as problems. What you appreciate, appreciates.

Before you criticize the culture you work in or the leaders of the culture, take a good look in the mirror. Leadership is about PRESENCE, not position. What kind of presence do you bring to your work? What kind of person are you? What is your “way” of being in the world? As a personal leader, you are a culture of one. Make it a daily practice to review your character in relation to your daily life, your friends, your acquaintances, and your work. Keep striving to be a better leader by being a better person. This is the real satisfaction and ultimate goal in life.


A first-grade teacher recently told me of a sad trend among her students. At the end of the day, she stands in the playground waving good-bye as her kids climb into the backseats of their parents’ cars. As they excitedly scramble into the car seats she witnesses their enthusiasm as they can’t stop talking about their day. The parents, however, are becoming increasing non-responsive. Instead, they are looking, not back towards their child but down, absorbed in their electronic devices.

When I heard this story I was imagining what the relationship between these children and their parents would be in a few years when the parents want their teenager’s attention.

The distraction of these parents is a symptom of how we have allowed technology to capture our attention and disrupt our connections. Daniel Goleman in his book, Focus, tells us that in 2006 the word pizzled entered our lexicon: a combination of puzzled and pissed, it captured the feeling people had when the person they were with whipped out a BlackBerry and started talking to someone else. Back then people felt hurt and indignant in such moments. Today it is the norm.

The onslaught of incoming data leads to an inability to focus on a simple task like reading or attending to people before we get an urge to go online to check our email or texts. The volume of the messages leaves us too little time simply to reflect on what the messages even mean.

This inability to attend was foreseen in 1977 by the Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon. Writing about the coming information-rich world, he warned that information consumes “the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

Learning to make contact with people in an attention impoverished world works like strengthening a muscle. If the skill isn’t developed it can wither; exercise it and it grows. Here are three ways to develop your capacity to attend to what matters – a vital leadership and relationship skill in our complex, demanding world.

1)    Turn off technology.  I know people who, after reading two pages or talking with someone for two minutes, become anxious or have a craving to check email or incoming texts. It’s addictive. Schedule times to check your email, and turn off the message alert in between. Make a pact with people at work that you will be present during certain times in the day or the week – without technology interruptions. Remind those who depend on you that the world won’t stop if you take a few hours before responding to an email. When you get home from work, practice leaving your phone in a drawer while you are present for the people you care most about.

2)    Practice a little dose of empathy every day. Empathy is the ability to “feel with” another person, to convey understanding from another’s frame of reference. Empathy isn’t about trying to “fix” somebody or rescue anyone from their unhappiness, but means putting yourself in their place, and attending to them with caring presence. Every day presents opportunities to express empathy and connect with someone on an emotional level, even for a few moments. You can even do this at a bus stop when you recognize that the person standing next to you is cold, or pay some attention to a colleague down the hall who is nervous about the possibility of being laid off. This is how you cultivate trust, give others a sense of belonging, and make room for human contact. Devices will never be able to convey empathy.

3)    Get on the bench. I heard once that when Wayne Gretzky sat on the bench between shifts on the ice, he could lower his heart rate from 180 BPM to below 50 in less than a minute. He was able to completely unplug from the intensity of the game during these rest periods. For many of us, it’s a luxury to get some uninterrupted private moments during the day when we can lean back, rest, and reflect. We are always “on the ice,” in the midst of nonstop emails and demands from others. Without time to rest, our brain is thrown into a state that opposes the open focus where innovation flourishes. In the tumult of daily demands and to-do lists, there is no room for creativity that comes from focused attention. The stories of significant discoveries are rife with tales of brilliant insight during a walk, in the shower, or on a vacation. Down time lets the creative juices flow. Tight schedules kill innovation and connection. Take some unproductive time daily to simply tune in and attend to the natural world around you. Or just stop for a few moments at your desk. Sit back. Close your eyes. And take a little non-thinking time for yourself. What Daniel Goleman calls a “creative cocoon.” Get off the ice of demands every so often and onto the bench.

How do you strengthen your attention muscle? How do you practice being present and tuned in to the world around you? How are you there for others? How does increasing your ability to be attentive improve the quality of your life and relationships? 

What’s The Difference Between Communication And Just Passing Along Information?

I serve as vice-chair on an international nonprofit board. Our chair is passionate about her work and about staying in contact with board members around the world. If she has a weakness, however, it’s that she assumed that sending emails to board members meant she has actually communicated with them.

“I can’t understand why he didn’t get the message. I was so careful about crafting a clear email that outlined all the facts.”

We have had some long discussions lately about the difference between passing along information and actually communicating a message.

The problem, of course, is not in her intent. The problem is that texting and emails are great ways to pass along information. They are just a lousy way to communicate. I’m all for technology, but it is critical to understand the limitations.

To communicate you need conversation and dialogue. Even the phone can be limiting when it comes reading body language as a response to a message.

If you aren’t allowing time for reactions, questions, open dialogue, clarification, and a space for reflection, then all you are doing is passing along information. You aren’t communicating.

What have you learned about what it takes to communicate? What, for you, is the difference between passing along information and communication?

photo credit: Love you to (license)