With all the focus on employee engagement these days, you may have had the idea of doing a survey in your workplace to find just how engaged or — shudder — disengaged your people are.

To be sure, a survey can be a great tool for improving engagement… or backfire, giving people yet another reason to disengage.

How’s that? According to Mark Murphy of Leadership IQ, a management consultancy, employers too often break the cardinal rule of employee surveys: Don’t ask ANY question that might elicit an answer you can’t do something about. It’s a little bit like the advice given trial attorneys: Don’t ask a question you don’t already know the answer to.

As bad examples, Murphy cites questions that ask respondents to agree/disagree/rate on a numerical scale statements like these:

  • I have good friends at work
  • I trust my boss
  • My boss cares about my welfare


So what can we do?
The problem, Murphy points out, is that if a lot of employees report they don’t trust their boss, there’s not much you can do about it. You don’t know why this is so, and any palliative action you might take is just guesswork.

And if you don’t act on the answer, then people will feel disappointed and cynical — “Why do they bother to ask us if they ignore our answers?” — two emotions that don’t do anything for engagement.

Instead of questions like the above, Murphy recommends zeroing in with more specific ones, like:

    “When I share my work problems with my direct supervisor/manager, he/she responds constructively,”


    “Does the organization provide adequate opportunities for employees to get to know each other and build strong personal connections?”

Now there are questions whose answers you can act on — actions that, you can hope, will make employees feel good about their workplace and more likely to put in the discretionary effort that is the hallmark of high engagement.

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