Poor Ian. He was supposed to be taking some time off last month, after a busy quarter designing and administering employee engagement surveys for several large organizations.

But he just can’t relax, because a little like Santa, he has made his lists, checked them twice and has a high degree (+/– 3%, 97 times out of 100) of certainty about who’s naughty and who’s nice.

Unlike Father Christmas, however, he doesn’t get away with the passive-aggressive use of coal: he needs to present the annual survey results to client executive teams over the next few months in person, with PowerPoint and it won’t be pretty. He’s previewed the highlights with the HR leaders. They’re working on a spin strategy so the whole thing feels less awful, but it’s still awful.

Employee engagement Candler Chase Elizabeth Williams

I know, I know. We were getting rid of those terribly flawed, antique employee surveys, weren’t we? We were going to the more modern approach of pulse surveys and continuous feedback loops and all that, weren’t we? Well according to Gartner, 74 percent of companies are still clinging to their annual engagement surveys.

Perhaps it’s because engagement is now a management KPI, and we need a measurement instrument. Perhaps it’s just easier to keep slogging along with the devil we know. Probably it’s really not on anybody’s radar to do anything about it, so, like painful rituals everywhere, it persists in its irritating certainty.

Ian knows what’s coming next and this is where his soul dies just a little bit each time he presents the results to his clients.

Just like the stages of grief (anger, denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance), there is a predictable pattern that attends the readout of the employee survey

Stage 1: Betrayal
This is a bit like anger, but it has a palpable sadness because there was so much effort made to address last year’s complaints. Well, okay, maybe not effort but intent. After all, didn’t we increase the referral bonus for new hires by five percent? And look at the swell new open plan office design. Can’t these picky snowflake Millennials give us a break? This is a frigging business, not a day care centre. How ungrateful. After all we’ve done for them, this is the thanks we get?

Stage 2: Nitpicking
Kind of the like the bargaining stage of grief, once the shock and anger subside, it’s time to see what we can do with the new reality to make it less, well, real. It will begin with a broad assault on the survey, its methodology, its interpretation, its margin for error, and all that. Ian is a statistician by training so he gently shoots down the notion that the entire thing is just wrong, though if you put a couple of drinks in him, he would be forced to admit that all the wrong questions are probably being asked in all the wrong ways. But that’s for another day.

Ian’s usual response to the nitpicking is to redirect from the summary results to the specific business unit results. There is always at least one good news story in there to restore faith in the process, plus there’s the added bonus of some Type A competitiveness kicking in and generally pushing the nitpicking to the background. Which is where the qualitative stuff becomes interesting.

Stage 3: The Blaming of the Few
Ian dreads the qualitative readout. It’s the part where his firm analyses the comments and tries to find some useful themes in the wreckage of threats and complaints. He will lump them into categories, like leadership effectiveness, alignment, communication and loyalty, but soon after he begins to offer some conclusions, the executives flip to the back of the deck to read the individual comments.

This is the eye of the employee survey readout hurricane. For ten minutes the room stills as they read through the anonymous verbatim comments. Ian’s team has removed ad hominem attacks and anything unintelligible, but the comments tend to the negative, and some employees have a great deal on their minds.

As the hurt feelings in the room settle in, someone volunteers that they know exactly who contributed a specific comment. “Oh, I’ll bet that’s the sales guy we fired two weeks ago.” Or, “that must have come from the implementation team we downsized last April.” Or “that’s cranky Linda in operations; she complains about pay equity all the time.” And so it goes. Little by little, the most damaging, most depressing comments are excused, neutralized, minimized, compartmentalized and packaged into digestible anomalies in an otherwise pretty sunny corner of the universe.

Not bad for 90 minutes of meeting time. Ian’s read-out is done and it’s time for the HR team to push for some kind of action.

Stage 4: The Tiger Team
Unlike project proposals, task force reports and other executive-level information dumps, the employee survey can’t be postponed, buried or ignored. Everyone in the company knows about it, and everyone is waiting to see what the Power is going to do with the Truth.

Having whined about the betrayal, nitpicked the validity of the results and spread the moments of truth about like peanut butter on warm toast, there remains, still, an obligation for the executive team to do something about it.

Just as surely as the plate of terrible chicken wraps and soggy couscous salad will arrive at 11:50, so, too, will the CEO point at the HR person and a junior member of the executive team and tell them they are the point people on fixing engagement, ideally by the second quarter.

Stage 5: Lunch
As Ian gobbles his wrap, pockets one of the cookies for later and begins figuring out how he can slip out of the room unnoticed, the two executives now tasked with “fixing” employee engagement will start mumbling about tiger teams, town halls, feedback sessions and deep dives.

Sadly, in most organizations, this is the end of the employee survey process for another year. If you are still wondering how it is that employee engagement has improved just a handful of percentage points in the past 30 years, this is probably why.

We’re asking the wrong questions and grinding up engagement, satisfaction and experience, which are all very different things, into a nasty little paste. Employee experience, then, becomes a problem to be solved instead of a strategic advantage to be created.