Beyond Engagement Surveys

perspectives Aug 18, 2021

In the last two decades, Employee Engagement Surveys (EES) have been widely used to gain important insights into organisations and to assess performance. As organisational contexts become more complex and unstable, and thinking about engagement and culture has progressed, organisations are seeking measures to adequately capture the emerging drivers of performance.

In a dynamic environment, root causes can be so complex and the inter-relationships not necessarily visible that when you address one issue, another arises. This poses challenges for traditional survey approaches. Firstly, the statistical techniques like linkage and driver analysis may not capture the changing nature of the interrelationships. Secondly, it can become unnecessarily complicated trying to piece together all the interlinking problems and apply solutions.

How then do you monitor and manage progress and transformation to achieve strategic goals? We need an approach that can better contend with complexity and instability and can measure deeper, more fundamental organisational drivers of culture, and in turn, organisational performance. To do this we believe requires an adaptive measurement approach that can effectively guide organisations in developing sustainable adaptive capacity. This requires measuring and progressing culture as the key underlying driver to performance and engagement.

Employee Engagement Surveys have been useful

EES are key for organisations in directing what they focus on to improve their performance. This is enabled through the information provided in survey analytics such as driver and linkage analysis, which are then used to assess the relationship between different variables. This approach has delivered results and, in the process, taught us many things about organisational drivers and what has been seen to matter most for organisational performance.

After many years of measurement, there appears to be consensus about what is important in organisations. For example, leadership, and the relationship of the manager to the employee, is critical to employee engagement. Employees need to have opportunities for development, and engagement is dependent on having the right structures and processes in place. Pride in the organisation’s purpose and values increases employee commitment.

Building on current Employee Engagement Surveys

EES has its roots in organisational psychology, a paradigm which holds long standing assumptions of organisational stability. The assumption is that if you can establish clear cause-effect relationships, you can control the factors of organisational performance. This worked well in stable contexts – but it doesn’t work as well today.

It is now recognised organisations are more like evolving, living systems. Boards recognise the challenge presented by complexity, the need continually to change and transform organisations. Strategy planning methods have evolved to consider scenario disruptions from multi-directions seen (climate change) and unseen (pandemics). In the same way, EES methods need to evolve to consider the underlying complexity.

Contending with complexity

If complex interrelationships and unintended consequences are routine dynamics in organisational life, how do we factor them into our models and measurement of organisational performance? Here are a few developments that have been emerging that may help to answer this question:

  • Approaches to address complexity (Snowden’s Cynefin framework; Heifetz’s adaptive vs. technical challenges)
  • Adult development (Kegan’s Immunity to Change – deeper understanding of resistance to change in organisations)
  • Systems thinking (Laloux, Torbert, Stacey – dynamics, interactions and the organisational influence of shared beliefs)

Parts of this are reflected in new language in organisations around ‘horizontal and vertical development’, and ‘technical and adaptive challenges’. These are helpful lenses to make sense of complex organisations and provide more accurate reflection of the internal workings of organisations. We feel that while EES capture many ‘visible’ performance drivers, equally important are the ‘invisible’ aspects of the system.

This line of thinking encourages a dynamic, system wide view. People evolve, organisations evolve. Not in a technical mechanistic way, but a dynamic way with invisible forces.

Culture as a performance measure

At the heart of the complex, dynamic living organisation is culture. In recent years, we have all recognised that culture is important for performance. Globally we have seen our financial system plagued by reports of ‘toxic’ culture, the consequences of which have been devastating for customers, shareholders, and our global economic system. For example, regulators have begun to introduce requirements for Boards to oversee appropriate risk cultures.

Measuring culture: a way forward

Adaptive Cultures have developed a cultural framework that considers the alignment of culture to organisational outcomes. It has the following key premises:

  • Culture is a complex phenomena; it varies from context to context. Cause and effect are often separated by distance and time, and much of what influences and holds culture in place is unseen or unconscious
  • Culture is formed through the intersection of three phenomena:
    • Individual beliefs, mindsets and assumptions (individual maturity)
    • What groups of people collectively believe about how they should work together, how they solve complex problems together and run the business together (social maturity)
    • Structures, systems and processes – what is rewarded, punished, ignored and paid attention to (structural maturity)
  • The greater the change and disruption in the organisation’s environment, the greater the need for learning, adaptation and evolving of each of the three aspects of culture – individual, social and structural maturity
  • As a living system, each organisation has many internal and external forces that could disrupt the current system, and many forces that could hold the current system in place. To enable cultural evolution requires identifying the most significant inhibitors and working with these, to liberate the energy for ongoing evolution

The framework has proved to be highly effective in enabling deeper organisational sense making, including executive dialogue and action around how culture can influence strategic outcomes. A more detailed description of the framework and the background research that underpins it can be found in our ‘Developing Adaptive Organisations through Leadership and Culture’ whitepaper.

Measuring in an Adaptive way

An adaptive approach to measurement must be finely tuned to the context of the organisation and contend with the unstable environments we have been discussing. Ways to do this include:

  • Using innovative technologies that capture compelling qualitative data with large scale quantitative validation
  • Measuring different things at different time horizons – baseline, short term, medium term, long term
  • Measuring inhibitors and enablers to change is as important as measuring outcomes
  • Capacity to assess emergent and unpredicted outcomes (positive and negative)
  • Drawing from the emerging science of big data, systems thinking and complexity theory to broaden the definition of organisational data
  • Use a broad range of tools, fit for context. Using more engaging ways to gather data

By expanding what is measured – drawing on Adaptive Cultures concepts of culture, and the frameworks provided (e.g., measuring at the individual level, social level, structural level), it delves into measurement of deeper and broader areas (e.g., dynamics, beliefs, events, mindsets, interrelationships). It maps progress by using the maturity model, monitoring, and reporting back on the growth of adaptive capacity in the organisation, showing how the organisations performance is evolving.

In the process of adaptive measurement, an organisation often sees us as part of the intervention by helping the organisation strategically learn as it evolves. Feedback loops and iterative approaches keep the process dynamic, enabling rapid real time decisions by Boards and executives.


We need to re-look at our measurement mindsets in the face of the changes that have occurred and continue to occur. Why would the way we measure stay the same when so much around us has changed? A measure of Employee Engagement is a useful outcome measure to track changes when it is used as one part of a broader performance measurement system. But it doesn’t mine deep enough. Adaptive measurement and assessing the deeper structures that hold culture, and hence organisational performance, in place, are crucial.

“When we bring an adaptive measurement approach and open the field to finding measurement that is fit to context there is a liberation and innovation to find ways to better measure our diverse organisational environments.”


This article has been co-written by Dr Alex Stol, Adaptive Measurement and Andrew Brown, Adaptive Cultures. The themes in this article were shared in their webinar: Beyond Engagement Surveys. Watch on demand here.

Adaptive Evaluation helps organisations obtain accurate information on how their culture and strategy are tracking in their dynamic organisational contexts. It also provides a measurement for broader OD interventions and initiatives. In Adaptive Evaluation Alex uses experience and skills developed across corporate, community and education – challenging, complex, interdependent, unstable contexts to help organisations navigate measurement of their interventions. The purpose is to help individuals and organisations measure so they can perform to their potential.

Adaptive Cultures has been recognised by senior executive and board levels as ‘turning around’ cultures, leadership behaviours and results, helping leaders to make changes with a substantial positive impact on the wider organisation and community. Andrew has been drawn to the work of building adaptive capacity, as he believes it is essential in order for our organisations, industries and communities to grow and thrive.

Our Adaptive Cultures Community

Our Global Community is an enriching space for culture practitioners to share, learn from, explore and develop emerging practices in support of their clients developing needs. On our community platform we share methods and tools, ask questions, conduct developmental conversations and learn together.

Join Our Community

Read the Adaptive
Organisations Whitepaper

Download our Adaptive Organisations Whitepaper and learn how to evolve through change and complexity. To receive a copy, please fill in your details below and a copy will be emailed to you.