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Simon Thiessen

CEO, Culture Consultant, Facilitator

This article was personally written by Simon Thiessen based on over 30 years experience with leadership and workplace culture

Are your people highly engaged but leaving, anyway?

Have you done an engagement survey that suggests that you should find it easy to retain and attract excellent people, everyone should be happy at work, and results should be both excellent and sustained?

Yet, that doesn’t seem to translate to real world outcomes?

That’s because you are expecting the engagement survey to do something it can’t.

Let’s be clear. There is nothing wrong with engagement surveys. What they measure is useful. When they are well designed and credibly tested, they really do measure engagement.

The problem is that engagement surveys are often (we would even suggest usually) used to measure something they don’t. And can’t. We get weekly calls from organisations in which frustrated leaders are using an engagement survey for the wrong purpose or assuming that the results tell them something they don’t.

The biggest misconception we encounter is that engagement surveys and culture surveys or audits are the same thing. They categorically are not.

Average managers hate to hear this. They are in a hurry to take a tick and flick approach, something that doesn’t ‘distract from the real work’. Engagement surveys can be easy to implement and simple to unpack, because they measure one aspect of the broader culture.

Those same managers like to proudly and publicly point at the numbers from the engagement survey, while privately scratching their heads and wondering why they aren’t translating to genuine outcomes like retention, productivity, quality, sales volume, and bottom-line results.

Engagement and culture are related, but they are not the same thing and can not be measured using the same tools. Great culture leads to high engagement. The reverse is not true.

We all know of organisations, industries, and even sporting teams where highly engaged team members behave in ways that are not aligned with the culture the organisation is striving to create or with broader societal values. In those organisations and teams, people engage in destructive and immoral behaviours. They compete with each other, play politics and manipulate, cheat, avoid dealing with issues, play it safe, and avoid accountability. On an engagement survey, though, they would achieve a high score that could be benchmarked against other organisations and portrayed as proof of effectiveness.

When we measure and work on creating exceptional culture, we ask people to behave in a way that is aligned with strong values. That will inevitably flow through to high engagement. If it doesn’t, either you are misreading the behavioural alignment or the values need to be revisited.

Engagement surveys require people to look at the workplace from an ‘I’ perspective. It is all about how they feel. Culture surveys and audits switch the perspective to ‘we’ and ask people to think about what they actually do.

Feeling individually good is lovely and produces short-term gains. Doing collective good is critical and underpins long term excellence.

If you’re happy knowing how your people feel, go ahead and do that engagement survey. Just make sure it is a good one. If you want to understand why they feel the way they do, align behaviours with both values and results, and build a great culture by strategically addressing issues, talk to us about a culture audit.