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“Mark Five to Survive!” Why Your Old-School Engagement Program Is Destroying Engagement

You could call the following a hypothetical situation. Except that it’s not.

It describes the dilemma faced by millions of employees every year who are not well supported on their jobs and are then faced with an old-school employee survey. Watch the video here or read the parallel written piece that follows, then ask yourself how often this happens at your company.

The best example I can give of what’s wrong with current employee engagement processes would be to imagine someone goes to work for a company. Let’s say he’s a good person. He’s a hard worker.

But let’s say that he falls into a situation where he does not have the world’s greatest manager – his manager largely ignores him, doesn’t take him to coffee, doesn’t talk to him often.

It might be an organization where there’s not a tremendous amount of transparency, where there’s a certain amount of fear, where there’s not much recognition or sense of accomplishment . . . you can go on down the list.

Now let’s say this organization decides that, “We’re going to do a survey. And we would like your honest opinion about how you feel in this job.”

When he goes to take the survey, there’s a good chance the questions are either weak or dated or some combination thereof, but let’s say he fills it out very candidly. And if they ask him whether he’s gotten recognition, he says “Strongly disagree, I haven’t gotten recognition.”

Does your manager spend time with you? “I strongly disagree. That hasn’t happened.” He’s simply reporting the facts.

When he hits submit on the survey – on most surveys – it says, “Thank you for taking the survey.” That’s it. There is nothing that says what will happen with it. Even though he’s answered some very sensitive questions, he really doesn’t get anything in return at that point.

A few months later, if he’s lucky, he will see some type of a report that will come back from the organization that conducted the survey. In some cases, the number of people on the report will be as low as four or five, which means that the ones or twos he put on the survey – the “strongly disagrees” or “disagrees” – are apparent. It’s apparent from the averages that someone gave some really low answers.

If his manager is being bonused based on the level of engagement inside that workgroup, the employee, through his answers and through no fault of his own, may have cost his manager several thousand dollars in bonus. His manager may be angry and decide that now he’s going to retaliate in some form: “You want to play that way, let’s see how your job goes for you.”

Some of the people who conduct these surveys go so far as to say the people who are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” are, in fact, as one company says, “more or less out to damage the company.” So now his integrity is being questioned, that he’s going to be much less vigilant against theft, that he may himself steal from the company, that he may mess with the equipment, that he is, as one organization says, “working to tear down the work of his more engaged colleagues.”

Now they’re saying his candid answers reflect a character flaw, essentially, “Even though we, as a company haven’t provided you with everything that you really ought to have as an employee, when you tell us that you don’t like it and you report back, you have a character flaw. You are a bad employee for not saying that everything is just fine.”

All of those things happen to some degree or another in most traditional employee engagement surveys. In some cases, people will even advise their colleagues, “Just put a five – strongly agree,” “Put a five to survive. Put a five to survive, Baby!” or “Just lie on the survey, because it’s going to cause you a lot of problem down the line if you’re honest.”

If you think about that, it’s kind a contaminated process. It’s disrespectful. It’s counterproductive. It’s an absolute waste of the organization’s money. And so we need to get ourselves back to the point where, if we’re going to ask an employee how things are going, we need to be comfortable with him being candid, one way or the other.

Until we get to that point, there’s no reason to do an engagement survey at all. I would argue that a survey done in the way I’ve just described actually does more harm than it does good, both to the employee and to the company.


Want to find out how your job compares with those of everyone else in the United States? Go to and get your WorkHappier job profile. It takes about four minutes. You get your results back immediately after you hit submit. And you’ll have no reason to “Mark five to survive!”


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