Skip to content

The Potential Perils of Surface-Level “Engagement” Surveys

July 4, 2012

Employee Engagement and Motivation is Good; Mere Show is Not

Perhaps it’s obvious to those who either teach or manage human beings, but the lesson from yesterday’s post from Science Daily titled “True Nature of Staff Motivation More Complex than Surveys Reveal” bears repeating.  The story reports on new research from Kingston University and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, with two important findings: that there are two different fundamental types of motivation with very different implications for employers, and that positive responses to staff surveys about motivation and engagement may not be good indicators of true levels of engagement.

As the Science Daily story puts it:

The study found a key difference between types of employees.  Those who are involved only with the task at hand (known as transactionally engaged) tend to respond positively to staff surveys, but are often likely to leave quickly for a better offer.  However, those who are very positive and feel strongly about the organisation’s [sic] mission and values (dubbed emotionally engaged) are more likely to perform at a higher level and remain committed through good times and bad.

What this means for employers and teachers, and anyone in an organization whose job involves assessing employee or student motivation toward and engagement in their work, is that the kinds of surveys generally used for such assessment may be far from accurate.  They may even be suggesting that those who are only “transactionally” engaged have the highest satisfaction and motivation levels–right before they bug out for greener pastures.

What Does This Mean for Teachers and Trainers?

It is certainly very difficult to teach or train unmotivated individuals, and assessing students’ and employees’ levels of engagement is key to successful education.  However, this study reminds us that the easiest ways to do such assessment may well be the least useful.  For teachers, this means we need to go beyond the “Student Evaluations of Course and Instructor,” or whatever your institution calls its end-of-semester student surveys.  Although these can provide us with useful information about what we’re doing well or could work on, the Kingston U study suggests (although it didn’t directly address teachers) that students who respond positively to such surveys may be those who are “transactionally” involved in our courses: there to get an A and possibly some career-related skills so that they can move up.  And now that many such surveys are conducted online and are voluntary, we may only be getting responses from those students.

The same may be true for trainers and employers.  When staff satisfaction surveys, quality of life or work-life balance assessments, and other evaluations of engagement in the company’s mission are sent out, who responds?  If response is mandatory, which individuals are responding positively?  There needs to be longer-term follow-up after such surveys (do positive responders stay longer at the company, or leave sooner? do those who bother to respond show higher or lower levels of commitment in difficult times?).  Don’t let the survey “speak for itself”; surround it with other, longer-term assessments and correlations.  Also, don’t ever underestimate the great value of individual, in-person talk.  Often, we get a better sense of someone’s engagement through their spoken words and nonverbal gestures.

To-Do List

As is typical of many scientific reports, the Kingston U study ends with the statement that the issue of engagement is “much more complex than has been portrayed in the past” but without any suggestions for action.  I’m going to offer three.

First, always model the engagement you want.  If, for example, your job involves assessing employee motivation and engagement, and you send out surveys and leave it at that, you are probably modeling “transactional” engagement, even if that’s not what you feel.  If you have a commitment to the work your university, company, or non-profit is doing, tell others why and how that commitment came about.  What first drew you to the work?  Why do you continue with it even when you’re bummed or tired or frustrated?  You don’t have to be a walking advertisement, but you do need to be engaged yourself, and showing it.

Second, in terms of assessments, make them frequent and allow students or employees to use more of their own words and fewer “fill-in-the-blanks” or multiple choice.  “Transactionally-engaged” employees and students are working to get the most they can out of the situation; they may well feel it’s both easier and has a higher return for them to select “highly agree” on the survey and move on.  If they have to respond in their own words, you get a better sense of how they view their work.

Finally, remember that those who will be your best employees and students–those who will continue to do their best even when it’s hard, those who will not give up when frustrated or confused, those who will not jump ship or do the bare minimum–are those who are “emotionally engaged.”  This means actually making your business or course worth being emotionally engaged in.  It means providing benefits and activities and reasons to stick around that don’t necessarily have to do with money or grades.  It means praising and showing off your best employees and students, not just critiquing those who don’t perform as you’d like.  It means, to come full circle, actually talking to students and employees, one on one, and finding out what really motivates those you would like to continue to see every day for the next 15 weeks, or several years or decades.

Typical engagement surveys may cater more to those who are only “transactionally” engaged in their work, according to a new study; one-on-one talks, modeling of “emotional engagement,” and working to make your course or business a place worth being engaged in are deeper, and more lasting, ways to build true participation.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: