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How engagement can screw up your culture

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So you want to improve things around the place. You’ve heard about the business performance and financial benefits of a highly engaged culture, and you want some of that for your enterprise. Plus, getting on one of those Best Employers’ lists couldn’t hurt, right?

Actually, it could. And, more to the point, if you do it wrong, your entire engagement initiative could mess up a really good thing that you already have going.  Here’s how:

You don’t know what to promise your people, so you break other people’s promises instead.

A well-designed engagement initiative starts with a sharply defined employee value proposition. The EVP describes the kind of treatment that your people can expect in their day-to-day relationship with your company. Ideally, the EVP is drawn up with the input of your employees themselves (not just another statement sent down from on high).  It’s a list of behaviors and expectations that leadership and rank-and-file alike commit to so that over time your culture builds up experience by experience, like coral cells on a reef.  Strong, sustainable and capable of withstanding even an accidental whack now and then. The EVP is the promise you make to your people. And you keep it. And the smart companies design their engagement surveys to measure how well their managers are delivering on your specific EVP — not someone else’s.

Unfortunately many leaders think that reaching for an off-the-shelf engagement survey is the first step toward becoming a great employer.  These pre-packaged surveys are engineered from thoroughly researched (and, of course, lavishly marketed) data around what makes the typical individual happy at work.  But these researchers didn’t talk to your people about what makes them happy at work.  And maybe your people aren’t typical. So, if, for instance, you have a mature, mission-focused, serious cadre of professionals, how impressed will they be with the question, “do you have a best friend at work?”  They probably do. But that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how engaged they are on the job. And pretending to take that kind of question seriously could make them feel awfully silly.

Result: It’s going to be obvious that you didn’t think through this whole engagement project. And you could look just a little bit stupid. Or lazy. And in the meantime, the EVP that’s true to your organization goes untended.

You punish your managers for low survey scores.

Engagement surveys aren’t popularity measures. They’re effectiveness measures. And the scores are supposed to indicate opportunities to improve performance.  They’re not intended to be used in a termination dossier — at least not during the first one or two years of disappointing scores.

Your managers punish their direct reports for being honest.

Let’s face it, if managers have a small group of employees, it’s pretty easy for them to sniff out who might have been in the one to submit critical responses on their surveys.  The resulting damage to working relationships can range from hurt feelings and minor embarrassment to flat-out brutality.  When you give your managers their scores, give them the tools for discussing the scores with their people in a non-threatening way, and then the support they need for improving.

You do nothing with the scores at all.

Employees have invested their time (and more than a little bit of trust) in completing those surveys. They want to see some action taken on the results.  Does that mean you have to comply with every single request and accommodate every single complaint? Nope.  But if the goal is a improving culture that’s consistent with your EVP, then why wouldn’t you want to take visible action on opportunities that emerge from the survey results?

Launching a well-designed engagement initiative is one of the best things you can do for your enterprise. You’ll likely see an improvement in essential performance metrics: customer satisfaction; innovation; profitability; stakeholder loyalty; low turnover; a higher caliber of candidates.  But, unless you’re prepared to do a formal engagement initiative right (from EVP to survey results), you’d be better advised to invest your time, budget and energy elsewhere.

Image credit: BP2U, via iStock