Measuring things has been a hallmark of accountability in business for decades. There have been books, articles, and blog posts written extolling the benefits and importance of quality metrics. I’m not trying to discount the value that comes from metrics, but I do want to challenge how our response to metrics influences the quality of our behavior…especially regarding employee engagement.

employee-engagementI have seen so many different models regarding engagement measures. I have seen tiering where those poor unfortunate souls who end up in the bottom tier are put on the equivalent of a division/department performance improvement plan. Obviously a boon for improving engagement (said very tongue in cheek). There have been various efforts to “improve” from a 3.99 to a 4.09 within a specified time period. All of these efforts have been done with the best intentions, but they rarely improve actual engagement.

The fault in this logic is that the focus of effort is on improving the measure, and rarely serves to improve actual engagement. Imagine yourself on that low tier team. You have your regular job responsibilities, any other enterprise-wide change initiative, and then the added work that is “designed” to help you get out of that low tier. No one wants to live there, so when the re-survey rolls around, you answer more positively to move the measure and stop the extra work. Did engagement improve? No. It probably worsened, but the measure improved so those who care about that kind of thing are pacified and the magnifying glass moves elsewhere in the organization.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when addressing engagement:

  1. Dialogue – Don’t put all your engagement eggs in the survey basket. Engagement is about the human experience. Don’t diminish it to some quantitative analysis of snapshot viewpoints. Create a culture where dialogue between managers and employees is the norm, not the exception.
  2. Support – When engagement survey numbers are lower than expected, seek to understand and support. While typically unintentional, most engagement interventions feel more punitive than developmental. There are legitimate reasons and leaders in that area are already dealing with productivity issues that are influenced by low engagement; the last thing they need is a target on their back.
  3. Drivers – Do you know what the engagement drivers are for your organization? Do you know the variance in engagement drivers  among the various functions/divisions/departments within your organization? Does Marketing have the same engagement drivers as IT? My trick knee says no. When you understand the drivers, you get closer to the root cause instead of merely treating the symptoms – the measure – of engagement woes.

Engagement is a complex, multi-faceted affair and we can’t use a linear approach to solution development. How we measure is important for validation and statistical integrity. How we respond to that data is much more important for the overall development of our organizations. People’s engagement is not a collection of data points, it is a very personal experience that happens through relationships and overall climate within the context of work. If that is how engagement develops, then the solution must be met through the same context…not simply moving data points to satisfy dashboard requirements. How can you and your organization approach engagement measures more meaningfully?

  • Hi, I have several issues with this piece:

    –I know of no smart leadership that punishes a whole team if their engagement scores are low. However, when a team is miserable (compared to the whole organization or compared to others doing the same functions somewhere else in that organization) I do know quite a few who hold the boss responsible, absent specific mitigating circumstances; when that person is removed and replaced, there are often huge spikes in the morale and engagement of the team. I have seen this over and over.

    –“development” is fine and a good idea. However it makes no sense to to try and “develop” an individual who is making a team suffer with his poor leadership and people skills.

    –some 88%+ of engagement is driven by the relationship people have with their boss. This data is confirmed by more than one research firm, across millions of people responding to surveys. Whether you are in IT or Marketing, this is what matters, this core relationship. I am not saying there are not other factors, in specific situations, that affect engagement; of course there are.

    –why do we always have to make to make surveys and talking to people individually or in groups into a binary choice? Why not do both? Besides, talking to people often yields very different information than the surveys do, which is an issue of confidentiality. This is especially true when the CEO ambushes you in the elevator or at the company picnic and asks how things are going. Will you tell her everything that is on your mind? Or just a sanitized version of reality? If you can be 100% honest and open then you are in one of the few companies with that kind of culture, lucky you. For everyone else, what they really feel is often only known when they are safe to say it, which is why we need surveys.

    I appreciate you writing this and we do need to do something to improve, given that engagement is flat-lined at 33%, leaving a depressing 67% of US workers “not engaged” (much worse in some other developed countries). I just don’t want us to go in the wrong direction, or throw the baby out with the bathwater (such as surveys), in the attempt to improve.

    best to you, David

  • Apologies for the delay in responding. Your comment didn’t come through my email for some reason. That issue should be sorted now.

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply. Perhaps my post wasn’t as clear as I had hoped. I didn’t want to convey that a leader will “punish” and entire team for low engagement scores. There are often times efforts to improve the “score” and the team is impacted by those efforts. Even with the best intentions, these efforts can feel punitive at times. That was my original point. Agreed that replacing poor leadership is valuable for engagement.

    The overall gist of the piece is that at least an equal amount of attention should be paid to actual engagement, not just the movement of the measures of engagement. This wasn’t a clarion call to ditch engagement surveys altogether, but rather an admonition to take a slightly different tack in the approach to engagement. Thanks for bringing up some very important points!!