What to look out for when measuring your employee engagement

Measuring your employee engagement is the only way to find out how engaged your employees are and how you can improve to increase their engagement levels. But your culture may be stopping you from getting an accurate result. Here are 4 things to look out for …

Image of a man working at a desk - culture affects employee engagement
Companies with high employee engagement see 37% lower absenteeism

There are a lot of reasons why you should want your employees to be engaged – amongst them increased productivity, less time off sick, fewer staff leaving, more innovation, better health, oh, and let’s not forget higher turnover.

But just because you want to find out how things stand now so that you can put together a plan to improve your employee engagement, doesn’t mean that everyone agrees with you or will play by the rules. Ultimately if anyone isn’t giving you honest answers, for whatever reason, you’re not going to get an accurate result. 

Here are 4 things to watch out for and what you can do to prevent them.

A sudden change in a line manager’s behaviour

You’ve announced the employee engagement survey is coming up and told everyone what it’s going to cover, or perhaps you run your employee engagement survey at the same time each year. Suddenly a team finds their line manager is attentive, seems to care what they think and is getting things done that they’ve been asking about for the last 11 months.

When that team answer the questions about their line manager will their answers reflect the previous 11 months or the 1 right before when they became the best boss ever?

Chances are, once the survey has closed, that manager is going to drop back into their previous poor performance. 

The fact that they changed their behaviour indicates that a) they know they’re not doing what they should be doing and b) they can do a lot better. 

What can you do?

At the start of the section about line manager perceptions set the scene for your respondents; you want them to think about the last 12 months (or however long it’s been since the last survey if you’re running them more frequently). This will encourage them to think back further than the last few weeks.

Make sure the questions you have about line managers include words like ‘regularly’ and ‘consistent’. These will help nudge thoughts about inconsistent behaviour so you get a more realistic answer.

“Get a 5 to stay alive”

In the lead up to the survey launch date, line managers have a team meeting where they ask, tell or otherwise influence their team to give very positive responses to the questions about themselves. They may indicate that the results don’t matter, that it’s just a piece of company fluff that has to be be done.

The line manager is doing this because they fear what will happen if they get a low score. They don’t like failing, or they’ve seen what happens to others that got low scores, or there’s a company myth, like “get a 5 to stay alive”, that puts pressure on line managers to achieve very high scores.

The team go along with the line manager because they fear the fall-out.

What can you do?

Train your line managers to be good people managers so that they know what’s expected of them and how to deliver it. Training and defining a set of standards starts everyone working for you as a manager off with a solid foundation and eliminates any claims of lack of knowledge when problems occur. Training should be backed by easily available support should any incident arise where line managers aren’t sure how to best deal with it – they have someone to ask. Poor feedback from teams about a line manager’s performance is because of a decision the line manager made not to perform that part of their role to the agreed standards.

Communicate the purpose of the survey extremely clearly, along with how the responses will be used. This should include what will happen if feedback about line managers shows that improvement’s needed – directed at both the team and the line manager. If everyone knows what to expect and that the results will be used to improve weak areas, people are less likely to believe anyone that questions this.
The implications of poor performance shouldn’t be anything to fear for anyone concerned – embarrassment, shame and fear are emotions and feelings that people want to avoid. Ensure that neither the line manager, nor the team, are made to feel this way. 

Add a question about coercion into the survey. Having a question in the survey asking whether the respondent was told to answer any questions in a particular way will highlight any issues without anyone risking being identified as a tattletale. The existence of the question within the survey will act as a deterrent to most people and prevent them from putting pressure on any one.

Stop referring to the results as ‘scores’. Using a 5-point answer scale has meant that the responses can be used to calculate an average ‘score’. This is useful as it shows what areas are over or under performing compared to the average. Once that is done these results are often communicated leading to comparison and feelings of stress, embarrassment, shame and fear for anyone underperforming.
Ultimately you need to establish the standards you want to achieve. Is it that everyone in a team answers ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ to questions? Or that the majority of a team selects ‘strongly agree’? You may chose to discuss the numerical results with a line manager privately but the team report covering what’s going well and what needs improvement only needs priorities.

Examine your company’s culture. Look specifically at what feedback is given – whether it’s honest and constructive, and how feedback is given and received. And what happens when someone under performs; whether that becomes widely known (leading to stress, embarrassment, shame and fear) and what is in place to support the improvement that’s needed.

Circumstances based answers

Whilst the majority of your team will answer the employee engagement survey truthfully, some just won’t.

The miserable or angry (and disengaged) person will go through the questions answering as negatively as they can without much variance. They’re making a point. And they can make that point whilst dragging down your average. This may seem childish, but it happens!

The person that doesn’t believe anything will ever change and therefore it doesn’t matter what answers they give. Usually this group don’t answer the survey as they see it as a massive waste of their time, but if they feel they have to do it they stick to the middle of the answer scale e.g. ‘neither agree nor disagree’. These answers are often not included in analysis.


The one that doesn’t want to deal with the fall out of poor performance by their line manager or something specific to their team, so goes for the positive end of the answer scale even though this might not be what they really feel. You can only identify these if the rest of the team answer truthfully.

What can you do?

Be aware that this happens. Look out for the signs as detailed above. The survey is or should be anonymous. You’re doing it to find out how engaged your team is and what areas you need to improve. All of the above have issues with something about your organisation.

Look for responses at each end of the answer scale. If you’ve got similar quantities at each end that’s a great sign that somethings going on. Find out what these people have got in common, your answer should give an indication of what’s happening. It’s likely that you’ll need to take further action to find out more detail.

Fear of fall out

A line manager has been told that the results of the employee engagement survey for their team are below average. They’re under performing. Bad news is hard to hear; some will take this and look to find out how they can improve and take responsibility, some will look for people to blame. This usually ends up being the team they manage. 

“If you didn’t think I was doing a good job, why didn’t you tell me?”

“I thought this team was honest with one another.”

“So that’s what you really think of me. I’ve had it with the lot of you. How dare you!”

Sometimes it’s not just the line manager that the team fear. It’s the business’ response – whether that’s the next level up in the hierarchy or HR. The team have answered the survey honestly but the business seems to be taking the line manager’s ‘side’.

What can you do?

Have a supportive process in place. Meet with the line manager to find out why they’ve not been managing their team in the way you want them to – there may be something legitimate, such as workload, that’s preventing them from doing a great job that you can help resolve.
The line manager needs to be reminded of what’s expected of that position in your organisation; retraining or a refresher day will provide this information. 
Establish clear boundaries for how the line manager should approach the team going forward, specifically that they will be managed fairly and there will be no repercussions.
Ensure there’s ongoing support for the line manager – consider a mentor who has the experience and approach to line management you want to encourage.
Meet with the team without the line manager to gather their feedback for the line manager and the business. Remember you’re there to listen and not defend.
Hold a meeting with the line manager and the team. Establish a plan that will help the team move forward, including actions for the line manager, the business and the team. This meeting will be uncomfortable for the line manager and some of the team, so it needs to maintain the focus on improvement, not blame.
Check progress after several weeks with the team and the line manager.

Encourage line managers to ask questions about their performance in 1-2-1s and team meetings. Make feedback a normal part of life in your organisation for everyone. Everyone will get used to giving and receiving feedback. It won’t be seen as criticism but as a useful tool to get the job done in a more effective and more efficient way, that helps everyone grow in their roles and develop new skills. 

Provide guidance on giving feedback. There are 2 types of feedback – constructive and destructive. Constructive feedback creates a positive work environment and helps people understand what they did well and that in some areas they can do better, see things from a different perspective, feel appreciated and value other people’s feedback.
Destructive feedback destroys confidence and is usually done to hurt people’s feelings – consciously or unconsciously. It usually focuses on the individual – they’re told that they’re doing a terrible job but aren’t given any evidence as to why; it can even include personal attacks such as being called lazy, ineffective, untalented, stupid, or name calling like idiot, moron, and so on. That person is left feeling crushed and has no idea how they might do better next time.
A short guide on what to include when giving feedback means that it becomes a shared skill, increases engagement and reduces the risk of destructive feedback being given.

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