Employee Surveys and the Stories They Tell


Think about a recent customer service experience you’ve had on the phone with an airline or cable company, in the food court, at a Starbucks’ counter or wherever.  In that brief interaction, you can tell instinctively, whether that person is an engaged employee. Easily. An engaged employee goes above and beyond to make sure your interaction is successful. And that engagement extends well beyond customer interfaces. It applies to any human interaction throughout any organization. Employee surveys show you why and how. They’re one of our greatest storytellers.

Employee engagement isn’t just another buzz word for how happy or satisfied we are in our jobs. It’s about taking initiative, going the extra mile, bending over backwards – all those euphemisms we can think of – that are outward behavioral clues.  How we get that kind of engagement has everything to do with winning the minds and hearts of our employees. It’s about engaging our logical, rational selves when we’re thinking about our jobs or a new process, policy or initiative: “Does this make sense to me? Is this a good thing for me? Is this good for my career? Is the compensation offered worth a change?” All these types of thoughts work into the equation. It’s the rational stuff that helps us decide to accept a new job. It’s that head-generated logic we keenly feel in the honeymoon phase of new employment.

But as we move deeper into our work, what takes over is the heart. We evaluate a whole series of signals from programs and policies and people, our relationships internally and our interface with external stakeholders.  We continually evaluate all these considerations by asking ourselves, consciously or not: “Does the organization really care about me as an individual?” If we conclude, yeah, most of the time it does, then we’re going to care back.

Herein lies the secret. Caring is the foundation from which employee engagement is built. And of course, when we have more people emotionally invested, dedicated to the job, our organizations are going to perform better, which means better key business outcomes.

So how do we get more people to feel we care about them and to care back?

For starters, there are about 16 or 17 dimensions of engagement (compensation, work/life balance, organizational vision, safety, and so on). Some appeal to our rational side, some to the more emotional side, and some to both.  Over decades of experience, TalentMap has come to understand each of these dimensions impact levels of engagement. But not equally; only a few pack a major punch.  The challenge is getting those right things, right.

Reading the numbers

Typically, the first numbers you’ll see in an employee survey analysis are response rates and how your organization’s employee participation numbers compare with others.

Then it’s time look at actual levels of employee engagement. How many people hold fundamental attitudes that make them want to go the extra mile. This measurement comes from questions like: “Are you proud to tell others you work here? Are you optimistic about the future? Would you recommend this organization to a friend as a great place to work? Are you inspired? Do you get a sense of personal accomplishment?” The overall percentage of respondents who agree or strongly agree with these things – that’s your magic number.

The people who answer, “neither agree nor disagree” usually do so because they’re conflicted. What’s important about these folks is they’re not inspired enough. They’re being held back by something. If you can find out what those stumbling blocks are, and address them, you can get more people engaged.

Inevitably you’ll also have actively disengaged folks. They’re the ones who have endured enough negative experiences within the organization that they no longer feel proud, optimistic or inspired. But are these people poor performers? Not necessarily. What they are, are people who over time have become cynical and jaded, and not likely to ever become re-engaged. For the purposes of employee survey results and follow up action planning, what you want to look at are the people who identify as favorable or neutral.

Granted, it’s natural to want to dive into theme areas where percentages are significantly unfavorable, thinking: there’s our problem, we need to fix it! Be patient. Let the story unfold. It may very well be an element that has little bearing on an employee’s sense of pride or optimism or caring.

The Story of a Town

Let’s consider an employee survey conducted on behalf of an affluent, populous town and the story their numbers told. Communication and compensation scored the lowest (no surprise there; compensation always comes in at or near the bottom). However, when looking closer at the numbers, from an overall engagement driver perspective, the areas with the greatest potential oomphf were:

  • Professional Growth – viewed favorably by 53 percent of employees when asking themselves: am I learning, am I developing, am I making an impact, am I living up to my potential?
  • Diversity and Inclusion – 81 percent felt good about this. Employees were proud of the fact the town tended to reflect the diverse community around it.  And it almost goes without saying, when employees feel included, so too are they proud, more optimistic and more engaged.
  • Organizational Vision. When employees saw and understood the direction the town was moving towards they felt part of the bigger picture and knew how they contribute. (Those are all big reasons why we feel inspired and optimistic about why we work where we work).

Delving deeper into this town’s employee survey results revealed a lot more. Some leaders had painted a compelling vision, but not all – which suggested a lack of consistency. A lot of people disagreed with the organization’s level of cooperation and teamwork, a trickle-down effect related to concerns expressed around leadership’s collaboration. Although diversity scored well, divisions weren’t standard notions of gender or ethnicity or age, they were around being part-time, which segued into professional growth issues. Part-time people felt excluded and unable to apply for full-time work when opportunities arose. Reading between the lines, would these part-timers think the town cared about them? Probably not.

By connecting the dots, it all begins to make sense. The storytelling that comes from employee survey numbers pinpoint areas with the greatest impact on engagement and point to potential areas for improvement. The town’s first step, the employee survey itself, is behind them. Now it’s all about sharing the story, taking the time to understand, and acting on lessons learned.

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