So many organisations strive for highly engaged teams. But looking at engagement data, it’s common to find teams with glowing employee survey results and serious performance issues. High turnover, poor customer satisfaction ratings, and a strong desire to avoid change of any kind – these teams seem to say everything is ok but clearly don’t act like it. The results fly in the face of the ideas behind most engagement survey programs where the link between positive attitudes and better performance is central to the rationale.

So why do we see this happening? In our experience the relationship between engagement and performance is highly nuanced, so it’s often for a combination of reasons. Here are some of the most common:

1. Because expectations are not aligned.
All of us come to work with a set of needs to be fulfilled and expectations about our job. The extent to which these needs are met drives how we respond to a survey about the company we work for. You might say that every employee responds using his or her own internal cognitive benchmark. This means that people with lower expectations are likely to rate things more positively than those who are more critical, demanding or well informed. For example, people working in technology companies are more likely to rate their equipment as poor (they know what’s on the market is often better than what they have at work), and lower-skilled workers in developing economies tend to be positive about their job, training and work processes, while more skilled workers in the same company are less satisfied.

Teams with poor performance and high engagement often have misaligned expectations, or a lack of understanding about what better performance looks like. For these teams, things are going fine the way they are and changing would seem counter intuitive. The responses represent acceptance of the status quo.

In situations like these, leaders need to help employees shift their mind-set toward a productive sense of dissatisfaction. The problem is that many leaders have trouble doing this this without diminishing the enthusiasm that people have for their work and the performance goals of the company. To succeed, engagement needs to become the motivation and energy people have for overcoming the challenges of the business – instilling a positive sense of stress and discomfort while maintaining energy and drive – as Liane Davey puts it in her HBR article, maintaining a “productive range of distress”.

2. Because my boss is a nice person but a bad manager.
It’s common for people to enjoy working with their colleagues and their boss; so when the time comes to offer critical feedback about someone they know, many people often face a difficult dilemma – do they say how they really feel, or cut the person some slack?

In recent years it has become popular to include employee survey results into line manager performance reviews. Although well intended, this can often lead to employees masking their true feelings. Even when people feel that their manager needs to improve, most do not want their feedback to end up with irreversible performance consequences. This is even more true when the team is struggling – kicking the person in charge with critical survey feedback when they are already under pressure would seem rather unhelpful.

The problem with this is that negative feedback can be powerful and constructive if it’s delivered and used in the right way. Organisations that focus on the developmental aspects of survey feedback tend to have much more success with line leader follow up, as well as more realistic employee feedback about what’s going on. They also see fewer managers acting in puerile ways to encourage more positive survey responses enabling better insight and analysis at the organisational level.

3. Because raising the red flag isn’t worth the hassle.
Surveys are a great forum for employees to give constructive feedback but after participating in so many, some people become disenchanted with poorly managed follow up. For example, concerned employees can find themselves at the centre of well-intended but painful processes involving difficult conversations with their boss, intense interventions from HR and additional workload from action planning and change initiatives. Over time, these employees start to consider if giving critical feedback is really worth the time and energy afterwards. In these situations, the disconnect between the survey results and performance output occurs because the team would rather avoid the added burden of extra unproductive work.

For many line leaders, the action planning activity after the employee survey fails because it is not linked to business objectives and so becomes cumbersome. The most successful organisations have stopped focusing on action planning as an activity and instead have focused more on integrating the data into how leaders think about managing people on a day to day basis – supporting better management habits. It forms part of their leadership process whereby the employee survey data helps line leaders set their people management agenda and individual development plans.

It’s not as simple as we thought it was.

Einstein once suggested “everything should be made as simple as possible but no simpler” (this is apparently a paraphrase of a more complex argument he made). Understanding Engagement is no exception. As HR joins the data science journey, we need to open our minds to the idea that having employees who are positive about everything is not only unrealistic, but actually rather damaging. Finding out what the right attitude mix is, will enable a much more powerful level of insight and understanding.

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