Guest post by Michael Henderson
Engagement surveys are a popular vehicle for measuring employee morale, developing an employee brand proposition, or as a means of positioning your organisation as an award-winning place to work.
All of these uses of engagement surveys are helpful. However, many organisations fall into the trap of extending the application of their engagement survey tool to define and describe their workplace culture.
As Abraham Maslow once noted “If you only have a hammer as a tool, then every problem is a nail”. In other words, just because you are already using an engagement survey to assess the engagement rates of your business, doesn’t mean that engagement surveys were designed to measure culture.
As I wrote in my new book, Above the Line, engagement surveys may be perceived to measure many things for an organisation, but culture isn’t one of them. Here are six reasons why:
1. Psychological hammers
Many staff surveys are designed and influenced by organisational psychologists rather than sociologists or anthropologists. This means that the surveys are designed to effectively explore and reveal the make-up of the individual rather than the collective.
This is fine for surveys of staff engagement, but of course this subsequently limits the relevance and usefulness of the survey results when used to interpret a culture, because a culture is a social collective and not an individual opinion.
2. Culture as numbers
Many engagement surveys are designed to deliver some form of metric measurement. For example, noting a 10% increase in the average staff engagement from 34% to 44%. This is fine for staff engagement, however percentages and averages do not define or describe a culture.
Why? Because you can’t measure culture. You can only measure people’s opinions of the culture. Whether the membership is increasing or decreasing. These are all simply measurements of the culture’s outputs and outcomes, but not the culture itself.
Culture is intangible. It is a collectively shared understanding of values carried about in people’s heads that motivates and inspires their behaviours. The culture itself can only be experienced and described but not measured.
3. Opinions are not culture
Engagement surveys at best measure opinions of the workplace culture, but not the culture itself. Many organisations fail to make this important distinction. The opinions themselves are useful and even important, but they are not themselves the culture. Most surveys are superficial in their explanation of culture. They mostly explore people’s opinions of the culture rather than the actual culture itself.
4. Every culture is different
Standard questions in engagement surveys are designed to enable comparison of results with other organisations. Given that every culture is different, one standard set of questions does not work for identifying the unique qualities of a culture.
Each culture requires its own set of questions to both understand and improve the culture. Standard questions can be suitable for simply understanding and measuring employee engagement, but when the same standard questions are considered useful in defining the sameness or difference between, for example, the accounts teams and production teams, then the questions become problematic in themselves.
5. Engagement surveys are disengaging
How employees feel about completing an engagement survey is usually more telling about your culture and leadership than the survey results generated. I have repeatedly seen staff loathe to complete their annual engagement survey and be forced to do so anyway.
This occurrence in itself could potentially describe volumes about an organisation’s culture and yet management and HR seem to overlook this.
The reluctance to complete the engagement survey coupled with the contradiction of forcing people to do so, could well indicate, for example, that the culture has become compliant or fear based. Yet this useful insight is ignored as managers drive through the process and then wait for the formal results to understand the culture they are overseeing.
6. Culture is always contextual
An engagement survey does not take into account the wider, strategic, social, economic, political or environmental factors and fails to understand or describe a culture. Every organisation attempting to make sense of, or align its culture without understanding the business strategy the culture is attempting to deliver, attempts to understand the culture out of a key context, which means it hasn’t understood culture at all.
Michael Henderson is a corporate anthropologist and has 30 years’ experience consulting to organisations to enhance their workplace culture. His new book is Above the Line: How to Create a Company Culture that Engages Employees, Delights Customers and Delivers Results (Wiley).