There's a huge number of surveys that organizations can use to measure employee engagement. Unfortunately, no matter how it is measured, engagement has remained relatively unchanged. According to Gallup, worldwide employee engagement is at an unimaginably low 13%. Perhaps what's more shocking is that this number has barely budged in years!

Engagement has become a key focus area for organizations around the world, and the growth in the industry has never been stronger. Yet somehow the numbers aren't budging. How can that be the case?

Let's take a look at a few of the biggest issues with employee engagement:

Engagement Measures Downward

A popular engagement model categorizes three types of employees:

  1. Actively disengaged: Unhappy employees who undermine their coworkers.

  2. Not engaged: Employees who are checked out and sleepwalking through their jobs.

  3. Engaged. Employees who work with passion and help move the organization forward.

In this model, an engaged employee should be the minimum of what an organization should expect from anyone, or an average employee. In grading terms this would be a C.

A not engaged employee is the equivalent of a D, and an actively disengaged employee is a big fat F. So looking at this model, the best that an organization can do is hire an average employee who will perform as expected. Everyone else is either below or very below average. Imagine what kind of organization this creates!

What about the employees who go above and beyond what is expected of them? These types of employees don't fit into the traditional model of engagement. This is what I mean when I say employee engagement is stuck measuring downward instead of upward: you can be only a C employee or worse when looking at this type of model.

Engagement has Become the New Annual Review.

In many organizations, employee engagement surveys are replacing outdated annual reviews. However, this isn't effective--anything related to people should be measured continuously. Perhaps you have a short single-question pulse survey weekly, monthly culture snapshots, semiannual engagement reviews, and a larger state of the company survey. Doing one annual survey may not give you an accurate reflection of what's going on inside your company. Some companies I've spoken with don't even look at people metrics annually. If annual reviews don't do a good job of measuring employee performance, then annual engagement surveys don't make much sense for measuring the pulse of an organization.

Another approach that some organizations, such as GE, take is to run constant surveys to random employees. You might do a survey for 1,000 random employees each month. The idea is to get employee data and feedback constantly from a representative sample size of the organization.

Engagement Tends to Look at the Effect but Not the Cause

In most models the ideal scenario for organizations is to get as many engaged employees as possible. Unfortunately, many organizations get so stuck focusing on engagement that they forget to take a step back to understand what causes engagement to begin with, let alone understand the impact that engaged employees are having on the organization. This means that engagement just boils down to a number, which is useless without context.

Engagement Surveys are Exhaustingly Long

It's common for employee engagement surveys to be well over 100 questions and ask pretty much everything and anything. That's too long for anyone to be expected to sit and answer questions! Let's not forget that employee engagement surveys can also be manipulated. I once spoke with a Chief Human Resources Officer who told me that if she wanted to increase her employee engagement score quickly, then she would ask employees to take it once on a cloudy, rainy day and then again on a sunny day. Boom! Ten point improvement! Some organizations also have the scary habit of manipulating their engagement scores by either offering incentives to get people to score higher or reprimanding employees who don't score their organizations high enough.

Engagement Acts as an Adrenaline Shot

When people start working for an organization, they are already engaged and excited to make an impact. But somewhere down the road we end up with employees who aren't totally engaged and happy, and we often have the engagement scores to back it up. Right about the time employees start to feel disengaged, the organization does an employee engagement surveys. When it sees the negative results, it might introduce new perks like free food or a flexible work schedule. Then things improve a bit, but eventually, the fact that the engagement scores drop again. The perks were a bandaid that ignored a larger problem. The lower scores lead to a new engagement survey, which leads to more perks, and the same cycle repeats itself. Time and time again we see that employee engagement simply doesn't lead to lasting change in an organization.

I believe that employee engagement can and should simply be measured by asking employees one question. What that question is can certainly vary from one organization to the next. How an employee feels is not a good indicator of engagement, but what he or she actually does is. This is why I think a question such as "Do you show up to work every day with the intention of helping others succeed?" is far better suited to measure engagement. When I spoke with Pat Wadors, CHRO at LinkedIn, she told me that if she could pick just one way to measure engagement at her company, it would be if employees show up to work each day wanting to create a sense of belonging for others. Focusing on an action is better than focusing on a feeling because it looks at a tangible impact.

While employee experience needs to look at many aspects of the organization and requires several questions to determine and measure, employee engagement needs just one. So what's the one question you could ask your employees to determine whether they are indeed engaged? Go ask it.