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Why Your Engagement Survey Isn’t Working (and how to fix it)

Engagement surveys can be a struggle, but they don't have to be. Learn some quick ways to fix a broken engagement survey and capture better data, faster.

HR and People Ops

Employee engagement surveys catch a bit of flack, but they deserve it.

Not many employees look forward to the annual or quarterly engagement survey, and can you blame them? These surveys often take a long time to complete—time that could be spent pushing goals forward or building better working relationships.

After all that time spent, the results aren’t always clear.

While they’re often problematic, the data captured in engagement surveys does matter. It matters a lot.

Why do employee engagement surveys matter?

These surveys promise to provide insights into different aspects of employee engagement across an organization, but that’s not all they’re good for. As this Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) guide explains:

“The simple fact that the organization is conducting a survey can send a positive message to employees that their opinions are valued. In addition, managers can gain insights into issues affecting their departments or business units that allow them to manage more effectively.”

What are the stakes of getting it wrong?

The most obvious risk of getting employee engagement surveys wrong is missing out on data you could have used to help attract, engage, and retain top talent.

As the SHRM guide goes on to explain, that data is important, but it’s not the only thing at stake. A poorly executed engagement survey can have negative consequences that reach beyond a lack of useful data:

“…if the senior management team is not fully committed and ready to really listen to and, most important, act on what employees are saying, then conducting a survey can falsely raise expectations among employees, leading to an employee relations disaster.”

Why do engagement surveys fail (and how can I succeed)?

Capturing primary data on employee engagement is still one of the most important steps an organization can take toward improving it; however, when, why, and how that data is captured can have a significant impact on results.

One of the most common ways engagement surveys come up short is by failing to capture responses in the first place.

If you’re having trouble with participation rates, you’re not alone. Generally speaking from his expertise and working experience with other organizations, HR strategist Dr. Gonzalo Shoobridge explained:

“In general, if you get more than 70% you can consider that your response rate is very good. Anything between 60% and 70% is good. Scores between 50% and 60% are acceptable and are considered industry standard for web-based surveys. Anything below 50% is poor. Response rates below 30% should ring alarm bells in your organisation as it simply indicates a complete lack of engagement and trust in your organisation’s internal feedback processes.”

While that may seem like a low estimate, Quantum workplace shared similar statistics. Average completion rates might differ for your organization, but it’s still telling that a 70% participation rate is considered strong on average.

There are a few other common ways engagement surveys fail to achieve their goals they’re designed for. Solving any these issues could make an impact on success rates; solving all of them might transform the practice for your team entirely.

You haven’t defined engagement

Employee engagement is difficult to improve, in part because it is notoriously nebulous. If you ask three experts to define employee engagement, they’ll all give you variations on the theme of “the connection employees feel toward their team, their organization, and its goals.”

Take that a step further now and ask a non-expert: a random sampling of C-suite members without an HR title, for example. Unless you’re in a tiny minority of organizations, that definition gets exponentially murkier.

How to fix it

Employee engagement survey analysis (and the improvements it can support) relies on a clear idea of what you’re measuring for. This single factor informs everything from the questions you ask, to the cadence you ask them at, and the actions you take as a result.

Starting with that foundational definition, what does employee engagement look like in your organization? What are you optimizing for?

You’re just going through the motions.

Employee engagement is a team sport. If you’re sending employee engagement surveys because you’re supposed to, or because “HR wants to,” you might as well save everyone some time and stop.

This mindset limits many real benefits you might expect to get from engagement surveys to the point that they are a resource drain, both for senders and recipients.

How to fix it

The goal of engagement surveys is to better understand what motivates (and de-motivates) the core of your organization: its people. For an engagement effort to succeed, it needs priority and continued focus. Engagement is more of a group marathon than a sprint.

To earn the buy-in you need, it’s crucial to define the value of engagement and show how that value impacts the organization.

Senior leadership isn’t invested.

For better or worse, senior leaders are also the culture leaders of your organization. If they don’t express their involvement and interest in employee engagement, don’t expect anyone else to.

How to fix it

Key in on the bottom-line benefits of strong engagement until it becomes as crucial as any other organizational goal or KPI.

When senior leadership references engagement statistics and initiatives during all-hands meetings, it sends a signal that they matter, and they’re worth focusing on. If engagement numbers are strong, that’s cause for celebration.

If the numbers aren’t good, don’t gloss over that because it will already be painfully obvious to the audience anyway. It takes courage to frame it as an opportunity to learn and grow as a collective.

Team leadership isn’t invested.

If senior leadership shows an interest in improving engagement but team leads and line managers don’t, it sends a signal that engagement initiatives are more performative than functional.

If a manager shows disdain for the process and tells direct reports “just take the survey as quickly as you can and get back to your real work,” you can guess how well those surveys will turn out.

How to fix it

Make engagement results a key expectation for all levels organizational leadership. It’s not fair to expect individual managers to have great engagement statistics when overall company statistics are low, but if some teams consistently score lower than others, it may be a valuable opportunity to improve organizational culture.

Individual contributors aren’t invested.

Individual contributors have a unique and valuable perspective on different areas of your organization. That perspective can be lost when engagement initiatives either gloss over or disregard the connection between larger organizational goals and values and what’s happening on the ground.

How to fix it

Make engagement initiatives and data as transparent as possible. It can be helpful to see not only how one’s impressions compare to those of others in aggregate, but also how sharing thoughtful responses can influence the work environment.

You’re asking too much of recipients

Even though their goal is empowerment and growth, engagement surveys can be a tax on employee time and resources. This detracts from the perceived value of engagement initiatives as opportunities for individual and organizational growth.

Luckily there are a few areas where just a little tuning can result in an outsized impact on the overall experience.

Your questions are too broad

Open-ended questions are incredibly valuable. They can provide unique insights, but just like any other item of incredible value, they shouldn’t be overused.

Broad, open-ended questions take a lot of thought to answer. The cognitive load is high in comparison to something like a multiple choice, numeric range, or yes/no question.

How to fix it

Use open-ended questions sparingly, as though they’re expensive (they are cognitively expensive) or rare. Make these questions optional when you can. For example, start with a numeric range, multiple choice, or any other quantitative question and provide the option to supplement the answer with more depth.

You’re asking too much at once.

How long does your engagement survey take to complete? If it’s more than 5 minutes, you’re asking too many questions at once. There’s a reason vendors and shops offer a monetary incentive like a gift card for completing a long survey: they only get one chance per individual at getting the info, and they need to gather as much as possible. This means having to provide incentive to sweeten the pot and make it feel worth it.

If you’re pulling employees away from their work to fill out a long survey, they’re doubly disincentivized. They’re not getting anything in return for giving the info, meanwhile their workload is increasing because of the detour.

How to fix it

Ask a few questions (or even just one) at a time, rotating them from a larger list. This strategy also provides an opportunity to preserve context by timing certain questions to other events. For example: if you want to know what sort of effect your quarterly reviews are having on goal alignment or morale, you can align questions to match.

Your timing is off

If you’re asking employees to complete a long survey during productive time, you’re missing out on productivity and more thoughtful, complete answers.

How to fix it

Schedule your questions in advance to reach people at times that are traditionally less busy, and in a format that won’t require a major time investment. You’ll spend less time thinking about when to ask, and recipients will know when to expect questions to reach them.

If you do need everyone to take more than 15 minutes for an effort like this, consider scheduling the time in advance, so that expectation is clear and it feels less like an infringement on productive time.

You’re not following up effectively on results.

No matter how you capture employee engagement data, if you don’t have a plan to communicate and follow up on the results you get, you’re missing the point. There are numerous ways follow-up can break down, but the following three are common.

Follow-up doesn’t happen at all.

Employee engagement surveys are ultimately a tool for improving engagement, and if there’s no follow-up effort, there’s no improvement. This is the worst-case scenario for employees, for engagement at large, and also for the long-term health of your organization.

Without follow-up, employees are likely to feel as though their opinion was disregarded and their time wasted. In this scenario, an engagement survey has the potential to decrease engagement.

How to fix it

Evaluate every question you plan to ask with the intention of following up. “If I see this result, how would I follow up?” If you can’t answer that, your question isn’t ready.

Follow-up is asymmetrical to the feedback.

Your follow-up doesn’t have to be perfect. Even a failed follow-up initiative is better than nothing, but if you don’t learn from those efforts, improving employee engagement will be an uphill battle.

How to fix it

Feedback is a gift. If you’re willing to accept and grow from constructive criticism, the results will be better for it.

A simple way to capture that feedback is to gauge the reception of past initiatives as part of your set of engagement questions. It shows you care about improving the work environment, that you value employee opinions about it, and that you’re actively working toward improvement.

Follow-up happens, but it’s not communicated or visible.

If follow-up happens, but nobody sees it, did it happen? You put in the effort, employees diligently answered, you made subtle changes based on those answers, but nobody really noticed. It’s tragic when abundant effort is given on both sides of an initiative, but that effort doesn’t visibly pay off.

How to fix it

Talk about engagement data. Talk about it in all-hands meetings, talk about it in 1:1s. Discuss what the data means. Share insights in to the programs you’re working on, and how they’re impacting the results.

Key ingredients

Capturing comprehensive engagement data can be challenging, but there are a few factors that can help make it easier.


Engagement is a holistic endeavor. Strive to account for and speak to a diverse range of employee experiences as you design the questions and the initiatives they spark.


Too much can change throughout a quarter, and especially throughout a year. Frequent checks provide an opportunity for early course corrections that might be too little too late otherwise.

If you’re not sending long engagement survey emails, it’s a lot more reasonable to send them more often.


Drill into specific aspects of engagement as you capture data. It could be that overall, things look good, but one or two areas are keeping the whole from looking great.

Speed + Simplicity

Short, but frequent interactions help keep engagement front-of-mind without making the process burdensome for employees. Even something as small as changing the delivery method can make a dramatic difference, as Keap’s Allison Burke learned. By using Polly in Slack, her team gathered weeks’ worth of responses in a single day.


It’s one thing to gather data, and another thing entirely to do something about it. Align action and initiatives with results, and showcase it. Show the team their voice matters—that these efforts empower them and those around them to shape their work environment for the better.


If you want candid responses, it helps to give recipients the benefit of anonymity. There are things you’re only likely to learn if employees aren’t worried speaking their truth could get them in trouble.


Post transparent data, show visible efforts, and share the results. An open, honest approach to improvement is more likely to succeed than sweeping bad news under the rug.

Over to you

There is no single perfect solution for engagement; only honest effort and empathy. As you better your understanding of engagement in your organization, more solutions come available.

This is just a start. What are you doing to improve engagement on your team? Have you tried any of these strategies? Let us know @pollyai!

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