We all know how important it is to have employees who are highly engaged in what they are doing for the company. Common sense and lots of studies have shows that this usually leads to higher productivity and better results.

What is not widely agreed to is how you determine and assess just how engaged your employees are and then how you get them engaged. Some say that the big employee engagement survey companies who administer confidential and anonymous surveys give us the most effective way to really get a pulse of the engagement levels of employees.

Others say that they produce meaningless data that doesn't really inform us of how engaged our employees are or aren't.

I've been involved with employee engagement for the past 20 years. One thing I have learned is that the use of the employee engagement survey might be the most popular way to gauge engagement but surprisingly might also be the least effective way.

Here are five reasons why:

1. Confidentiality and anonymity challenges get in the way of the truth

A significant number of employees don't believe the survey is truly anonymous or confidential, which means you aren't getting the real answers you think you are. Ironically, that lack of trust is the real red flag around employee engagement levels.

2. Manufactured response rate is misinterpreted as good engagement

Most companies put a huge effort and campaign into simply getting employees to take the survey. Ironically, a better measure of engagement (on a survey at least) is how many people take it without being prompted as part of a campaign.

3. Problems with timely results creates perceptions of data irrelevance

In many companies, a survey is taken and the results aren't back in the hands of employees for weeks and sometimes months. Even with better technology to make results accessible more quickly, internal company protocol for leaders to see data first before cascading it down further creates the timeliness challenge.

By the time the results finally get out to the teams, you often hear statements like:

"A lot has changed since we took this."  

"Our team is very different than it was when the survey was administered."

Then you are battling the perception of data irrelevance, which makes doing something constructive an uphill battle.

4. Action planning around the results becomes an event

Action planning is the work leaders and teams do with their results to figure out what to go after and how to address it. The problem is that in many companies this becomes a single point in time event that eventually fizzles away. In other companies, teams take on way too many things to actually be able to make meaningful progress on any of them.

5. Timing always presents a challenge

Most companies do a big survey once a year or every 18 months. Some even go two years between surveys. When it is "survey time", there is a long build up at a company level because it is "engagement season."

When the survey is this big of a deal with such a long time in between surveys, you don't end up with anything other than point in time data. To make matters worse, if there are other big events happening at the time (which there often are), they become an excuse to disregard data we might not like or even postpone the survey until we can find a time period where our results won't be tainted with other stuff going on.

All of this creates a situations where you really don't know what is real and what can be written off as circumstantial.

What should you do instead?

There is a surprisingly simple answer that companies of any size can implement.

Most analytics show how important your supervisor is to your level of engagement. It has been shown to be one of the single most important drivers of engagement at the individual level and a big driver as to why people stay or leave a company.

Engagement should be driven through the supervisors, and it shouldn't be a big company event.

Companies that do it best recognize this.

They simply require all supervisors of people as part of their jobs as supervisors to have formal meaningful conversations with their teams about what's on their minds, and do this on a very regular basis. Once a month works great.

This way, open discussions with the team and their supervisors simply become part of how the team operates. It isn't an event, and it isn't seasonal. It is a process that happens all year long. This leads to people being more open about what is working for them and what isn't and allows the team to address those things together in small bite sized pieces.

Because the supervisor facilitates that process, the biggest driver of why people stay or leave a team is seen as the biggest advocate of making sure the team has regular dialogue around what is most important to them.

Rarely in the business world are things simple. In the case of engagement, though, it just might be this simple.