Make 2021 the year we end workplace engagement surveys for good -

Company Culture

Mar. 25, 2021 11:25 am

Make 2021 the year we end workplace engagement surveys for good

"It is absolutely OK that culture is an art, and a science," writes entrepreneur James Hancock. "If we treat it as such, we can understand, measure, map and move it together."
“ANOTHER pulse survey?”

"ANOTHER pulse survey?"

(Photo by Gabby K from Pexels)

This is a guest post by James Hancock, the cofounder of mwah. Making Work Absolutely Human, who leads its U.S. business.
This is a short tale of the timely death of engagement surveys.

Engagement surveys will be well-known to the readership — and I dare say very few will look favorably on their life lived. Random questions (“Do you have a best friend at work?”), mysterious data manipulation, secretive results and the dreaded action planning — often the main action being the action plan itself …

This gameable system has left so many organizations without anything on the simplest and realest intent of culture — to do great work together. Of course, other things matter. Signing up to a purpose, understanding each other deeply, building and fostering relationships and helping each other to belong so we can reach our full potential. These all count.

But culture is the way we show up, remove barriers and ultimately find ways to do great work together. Period.

The life of an engagement survey

So, how did we get here? The life of the humble engagement survey followed the trajectory of work as we’ve known it, not as it is.

From farm to the first Industrial Revolution to the clever application of science (Taylorism, Hawthorne studies, etc.), we landed with measurement systems for bosses — naturally, it was deeply hierarchical — focused on manipulating the work environment to make workers do more.

We dabbled with lights, plants and windows, plus 10,000 other things. We increasingly used technologies to be more productive, faster, to do more with less. Once we felt we cracked process efficiency and effectiveness, we tried the same with people, to scale “soft skills” and make humans speedier.

It worked well for business, but did it work well for people?

Fast forward to the 1990s and the engagement survey was born.

Even as we learned more about people, organizations, environments — the complex organizational culture system — engagement surveys gained popularity. And somewhere along the way the nuances and complexities of culture became flattened to a score: a single metric to map back to KPIs.


The engagement survey stood still, aside from us meeting the contemporary little sibling, the pulse survey. I love work, am upbeat and have a low resting heart rate, yet all are questioned by a pulse survey.

The present

2020 was an unfortunate refresher for humanity. We all felt it, albeit unevenly. A global pandemic. Changing work — virtual calls, physical work protocols. Divides. Health disparity. Racial injustice rightly front and center. Essential and nonessential work. Life milestones done differently.

Did the pandemic really grip our working lives, or was it merely a deeply unfortunate catalyst to change the underlying working system that was largely untouched for 150+ years?

The problems

The reality is, engagement surveys have 99 problems, but culture ain’t one.

They are about productivity. Culture is a complex social system, not a single score or whip to be cracked. They’ve been the hero measure of anything “people” by sheer necessity. We’ve had little else. Most “people” metrics have shown the efficacy of the HR function — not culture, or business health or performance. They don’t engage respondents. They are gamed (and have been linked to executives’ pay). They culminate in action-planning — too event-driven, oft unexecuted as “too big.”

Innovation and progress lives at the intersections — not swimming in one lane. Advances in technology sprout across diverse fields and people, arts, humanities, health. And vice versa.

It is absolutely OK that culture is an art, and a science. If we treat it as such, we can understand, measure, map and move it together.

The future

The future can be too vague, too hard to grasp, and sometimes it makes the present seem unworthy. It implies we will never be there, it’s passive. The future will happen to us, not be shaped by us.

So, it’s time to shape your future of work with two things. Firstly, acknowledge the (timely) passing of the engagement survey, and secondly, democratize how your work works — diversity, design, practices, principles and foster belonging as the post-pandemic normal.


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