A recent study undertaken by Cerus Consulting with a number of organizations in the charity sector has indicated that employee survey results frequently overstate the level of engagement that exists within the organization, and often fail to reveal serious considerations that need to be addressed. However this issue is not only confined to the 3rd Sector and as survey results often provide the underpinning for future change and improvement interventions, there is therefore a need to look afresh at the ways in which we measure engagement and the robustness of the information upon which actions are predicated.

The specific findings from the study were that:

  • Employees are frequently engaged with considerations such as the ‘cause’ or the customers or beneficiaries they are there to serve, rather than with the organization per se
  • Traditional approaches to measuring employee engagement often fail to make this distinction and where employees are delivering ‘above average’ levels of performance it is often despite, as opposed to because of, the organization
  • Employee engagement scores frequently mask underlying psychological concerns of employees that can result in ‘self protection’ behaviors and reduced short term performance
  • Ultimately higher levels of burn out, stress, sickness and absenteeism are likely with the attendant implications for employee wellbeing and sustainable organizational service and performance.


The current economic environment is particularly challenging for organizations operating in the charitable and not for profit sectors but the pressures are not unique to this sector – the requirement to ‘do more with less’ and to deliver ever higher levels of performance against a fluid and continually changing backdrop, are challenges faced by most organizations – and it is not likely to improve in the foreseeable future. If there was ever a time when high levels of employee engagement were required, the time is now, and on the face of it, there is considerable ‘evidence’ (eg the high engagement scores that many organizations report from their employee engagement surveys) to indicate that employees are rising to the challenge and are being successful in creating high performance work environments which stimulate engagement and performance.  

However we believe that, for many organizations, this may not in fact be the case and that these high scores may well be providing a distorted picture and masking a number of potentially serious issues. This belief has been borne out in conversations with a number of HR Directors who have expressed a degree of unease about the apparent disconnect between observed employee behaviors and survey results. Accordingly, we undertook a study involving eight UK based charities in order to test three hypotheses:

  1. That employees within 3rd Sector organizations are more engaged with the cause that the charity is involved in, as opposed to being engaged with the organization per se
  2. That as a consequence, engagement survey scores frequently present an artificially positive picture of the level of engagement that actually exists within the organization
  3. That this ‘over-positive’ picture masks deeper psychological concerns that employees have which have implications for both employee well being and sustained organizational performance.

Research Methodology

In total eight UK and International charities took part in the study and responses were received from a total of 56 respondents drawn from a cross section of organizational roles and levels. Respondents were asked to complete a short questionnaire to assess (using a five point measurement scale) the levels of pride, emotional identification, loyalty and advocacy they felt for both their organization and the cause that the organization was working for as well as the extent to which they were prepared to put in additional discretionary effort on behalf of the organization or the cause. They were also asked to rate their level of commitment and to select 5 words from a predefined list that most accurately reflected their feelings about working for their organization.


Analysis of the results showed overwhelming evidence that employees are more engaged with the cause than with their organization. The distribution of responses to statements regarding pride, loyalty, identification, advocacy and discretionary effort are shown below and indicate that employees responded much more positively to statements about the cause than the organization.

Detailed comparisons showed that employees were much more likely to express strong agreement about their level of pride, their willingness to advocate, their levels of emotional identification and loyalty and their willingness to put in additional effort, when asked about the cause as opposed to the organization, as shown below:

The relatively low scores / high gaps associated with identification, advocacy and loyalty are of particular concern indicating that employees are putting in additional effort despite, as opposed to because of, organizational behaviors and practices. This conclusion is borne out by the extent to which respondents indicated where their greatest level of commitment lay with the analysis showing that employees considered themselves to be more committed to the cause than to their organization.

An analysis of the words selected by respondents to reflect their feelings about working for their organization indicated that the most common words selected, in order, were:

  1. Stimulated
  2. Enthusiastic
  3. Frustrated
  4. Satisfied
  5. Happy

It is interesting to note that whilst the first two statements are associated with high levels of engagement, they were frequently accompanied by the third statement, ‘frustrated’, which is not. Further exploration into the causes of frustration was carried out in order to ascertain if this was in response to the broader economic and political environment in which they operated or reflected issues which were internal to the organization (eg about culture, leadership, job design etc). Without exception respondents indicated that their frustration was as a result of internal organizational factors (ie aspects which were within the organizations ability to control or influence). This suggests that much of the positive energy and effort being exerted by employees is being dissipated in an attempt to overcome internal barriers.

Further analysis of these responses indicated that:

  • Approximately 30% of responses reflected feelings that were positive in terms of potential impact on organizational outcomes and employee wellbeing. They exhibited high levels of activation and a positive emotional state and hence could be seen as being highly engaged with the organization
  • Approximately 40% exhibited a state that indicated positive wellbeing but which was not likely to lead to above average levels of performance; maintaining a ‘comfortable’ and stable working environment would be the priority concern for this group - a reality which might be difficult to realize in the current economic environment
  • In total 14% exhibited signs of fatigue and burnout and 7% highlighted feelings that are indicative of stress.

In other words 70% of employees were not channeling or aligning their energies in a manner that best served the needs of their organization. Of these, approximately 20% of respondents reported feelings that are often precursors of health and stress related issues and which can manifest in high levels of sick absence; they certainly do not lead to positive organizational outcomes as these individuals are most likely to adopt ‘survival’ behaviors to protect themselves, irrespective of the organizational consequences.


The study involved a relatively small number of organizations and respondents but nevertheless produced consistent results. In addition, despite the fact that it was focused specifically on the charitable sector we believe that the findings have much wider applicability. There is  a clear preference for ‘cause’ over ’organization’ and whilst we cannot conclude categorically that employee engagement survey responses are being distorted in every case, we believe that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that many organizations are not obtaining an accurate picture of their employee engagement levels from their surveys.

Further, we conclude that this may well mean that critical aspects of organizational behavior and practice are being overlooked in the belief that they are not fundamentally affecting engagement when the reality is that people are ‘going the extra mile’ despite the organization and not because of it. This may be manifesting itself in enhanced levels of performance and service in the short term but at a price; eventually frustration with organizational practices, burnout and stress will come to the fore with the inevitable consequences of physical and / or emotional withdrawal of effort. Consequently organizational performance will invariably suffer as will employee wellbeing – a doubly disastrous outcome not only for employees but for the customers and beneficiaries whom the organization aims to serve and for the organization’s reputation.  

What to do about it

This analysis highlights the critical importance of obtaining accurate measures of employee engagement and the potential risks and consequences of adopting measures that paint an artificially positive picture. Organizations therefore need to:

  1. View survey results critically and evaluate the extent to which they are borne out by day to day observations and other evidence – are they painting an accurate picture of reality?
  2. Be prepared to question underlying survey constructs and whether the measures truly reflect employees emotional connectivity with the organization
  3. Acknowledge that employees have different loci of engagement (be it cause, colleagues, job etc) – different thing matter to different people and a ‘one size fits all’ approach is seldom appropriate
  4. Recognize that engagement is not just about the ‘here and now’ – past experiences and future expectations play a significant part in shaping behavior and these need to be taken account of
  5. Managers need to ‘own’ engagement - they need to be equipped to interpret survey results correctly, empowered to take appropriate action and adopt ways of continuously assessing engagement levels within their teams


About the Author

Doug Crawford is the Managing Director of Cerus Consulting and a specialist in employee engagement and performance management. He has over 20 years consulting experience across a wide range organizations, both in the UK and internationally. For further information contact [email protected] or visit our web site www.cerusconsulting.co.uk

©Cerus Consulting 2013