How engagement surveys can reinforce the status quo

culture Aug 26, 2021


Survey making and taking has become part of our way of living and doing business. These range from customer feedback surveys to engagement, climate and culture surveys.

As our clients understand more about how people and culture can evolve, they begin to realise that many traditional surveys can have an adverse impact on capacities they aspire to develop. In this article, we examine some of the unintended consequences of engagement surveys.

How engagement surveys can reinforce the status quo

The positive intention of engagement surveys is to provide insights into how the organisation can evolve to become higher performing and a better place to work (to learn how to increase engagement).

Our experience is that:

  • Most organisations understand that engagement goes beyond providing ping pong tables, yoga or flexible working
  • Many understand that to evolve, adapt and enable higher engagement requires people to develop greater intrinsic motivation, personal agency, systems thinking and self-reflection
  • Fewer organisations have deeply examined the way their approaches to learning and engagement inhibit rather than promote evolution.

Engagement survey design can inadvertently discourage the very approaches that would help the organisation to evolve. For example:

  1. Thinking in parts rather than whole and nested systems
  2. Reinforcing current worldviews and beliefs rather than expanding and challenging mindsets
  3. Placing responsibility for engagement and culture on “the organisation” or people in positions of role authority rather than recognising that “all of us” contribute to culture
  4. Reinforcing that engagement and motivation is “controlled” by an external force, rather than it being something that each individual can control and influence

A practical example of how engagement survey questions can reinforce legacy mindsets:

In an organisation we worked with, we had the opportunity to debrief the impact of an engagement survey. Through our conversations, we found that even an innocent question like: “I understand the role I can play in contributing to the achievement of “my function’s” vision” had a number of unintended consequences which reinforced hierarchical and compliant ways of thinking.

In debriefing sessions, a number of implicit assumptions made by the majority of respondents were surfaced. For this particular question the two fundamental assumptions were:

  1. The language in the question supported a primary focus on achievement of my function’s vision. This reduced the respondents’ focus on organisational purpose and contribution. It also reduced the focus on functions working together to achieve a shared vision.
  2. People assumed, including managers, that it was their manager’s job to help them to understand their role rather than a mutual partnership in finding ways to contribute. This question and assumption reinforced extrinsic motivation and lack of personal agency.

Disturbing insights when reviewing patterns

In the engagement survey, the score for the question: “I understand the role I can play in contributing to the achievement of “my function’s” vision”, was in the top 5 engagement scores (people believed their managers helped them to understand their contribution to support the function).

Ironically, three out of the five lowest scores on the survey were related to teamwork, communication and collaboration between other functions, divisions and business units.

There were multiple examples like this throughout the survey.

The major challenge to organisational outcomes was the lack of trust, care and candour between areas whose work was interdependent, and this challenge was reinforced by a focus on the function’s vision ahead of the broader organisation’s contribution to its customers.

Until our work with them, the client had not considered the role of language in the survey in reinforcing assumptions, or the disturbing insights relating to scores of “high engagement”.

The high score for the question “I understand the role I can play in contributing to the achievement of “my function’s” vision”, was not “positive” in helping the culture to evolve. It reinforced the status quo. A high engagement score for this question may be “positive” in a stable, traditional organisation. In any organisation seeking to evolve beyond this, grow personal agency or responsibility, drive shared outcomes or foster collaboration and customer and community care, the high score represents a cultural inhibitor.

Asking different questions, or asking questions differently

At best a survey provides a snapshot of part of a person or collectives thinking process and experience. At worst, they can reinforce exactly the type of thinking that needs to evolve. We now know that every time we are invited to think down a familiar neural pathway, it reinforces that pathway. To think differently we need to start by asking different questions, with different worldviews at their heart.

We invite you to consider how the worldviews and beliefs that underpin any survey you consider running can either promote or discourage more responsible and adaptive mindsets in the organisation.

Some of these are: 

  1. What good leadership is. For example, role or authority-based leadership (heroic leadership), social influence (charismatic leadership) or distributed leadership.
  2. How people are motivated and empowered. For example, Intrinsic or extrinsic motivation, and how these are related.
  3. What drives productivity, innovation and creativity. For example, reward and recognition, autonomy and/or growing and developing towards greater contribution.
  4. What good culture looks like. For example, a fixed idea of good and bad, or a focus on continual evolution to positively contribute to wider groups of stakeholders.
  5. If culture is something relating to “happiness and people” or something which generates greater fulfilment for everyone through enabling organisational strategy and aspirations in a healthy and sustainable way.
  6. What are good behaviours? For example, when is conflict necessary and constructive?
  7. What stakeholders the company represents. For example, shareholders, customers, employees, community and /or broader eco-systems.
  8. The purpose of organisations. For example, to achieve goals, to provide secure employment, to efficiently produce goods and services, to contribute meaningfully to society.

To overcome these inherent limitations, the Adaptive Cultures Insights Diagnostic has been designed to diagnose, rather than survey the stages of evolution present in the whole of an organisation. It surfaces patterns that are either enabling or limiting the organisation’s aspirations.


It identifies patterns across the whole organisation to enable the organisation to better:

  1. Align all its parts to a clear and expansive purpose.
  2. Achieve its desired outcomes in line with its purpose.
  3. Self-reflect, learn and adapt rapidly.
  4. Envision the future and co-create alternative possible futures.

The Insights Diagnostic enables critical thinking and reflection rather than “quick answers” and is, therefore, a developmental intervention in itself. 

If you are interested in learning more about the background and framework of the Insights Diagnostic, download and watch our webinar ‘Beyond Engagement Surveys’. In this 30-minute presentation, Dr Alex Stol, Director – Adaptive Evaluation and Andrew Brown, Co-Founder – Adaptive Cultures build on the great work established through traditional engagement surveys. Adding adaptive measurements, such as the Adaptive Cultures Insights Diagnostic will guide deeper.



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