David Zinger’s humorous-but-true list of ten ways managers suppress employee engagement should be compulsory reading and reflection for all managers. I have seen many real-life examples of every item on his list, but one that particularly hits home for me is number nine:

And the survey says… Limit all employee engagement efforts to a yearly anonymous survey. If you don’t like the results do nothing about them and just repeat the survey again next year.

Many executives don’t realize that conducting a survey and then do nothing with the data is worse than not doing the survey in the first place. Employees will immediately make the assumption that management doesn’t care what employees think and they will refrain from investing their time and thought in future surveys. In some cases, employees might even sabotage future surveys by giving intentionally erroneous responses or refusing to participate.

And what is so sacrosanct about doing a survey annually? Depending on what is happening in the organization, such as a major change in management or an acquisition, you might need to know the level of employee engagement much sooner or much more often.

Most importantly, you should be asking yourself, “Is a survey the best way to collect the information that I need? Is there a better way to answer my questions about engagement?” Surveys are just one of many ways to measure employee engagement. If I want an estimate of how many people in an organization feel engaged, I’ll do a survey; it’s an efficient and sufficiently effective way to determine that number (assuming something close to a random sample of employees is used). However, if I want to know why employees feel engaged, how various organization interventions affect engagement, how engagement relates to performance, and what can be done in the future to enhance engagement, then I will use a different method. Usually, I interview employees who are highly engaged and ask them how engagement affects their work, what it is about the organization that makes them engaged, and what else the organization can do to keep them engaged. I interview them because it’s the only way to fully explore an employee’s thinking and experience. I find that ten to fifteen individual interviews of successful employees in an organization usually gives me the stories I need to draw reasonable conclusions about the links among the culture of a particular organization, engagement, and the performance of it's employees.