Difficult and Dirty Questions About Employee Engagement

Lewis Garrad

Managing Director Asia Pacific

A highly engaged team performs better, doesn’t it?

For so many people the question mark at the end of that sentence seems inappropriate. So much energy has been spent building business cases and talking to leaders about this, that confronting it as a question rather than a statement seems risky. But as the HR profession has started to challenge its status quo, asking better questions about the effectiveness of what we do needs to become common place.

Performance management systems seem to have been the first casualty of a new wave of HR thinking that tries to focus on effectiveness.  HR analytics is also becoming a huge topic with the hope of exchanging our biased opinions with data and evidence.  The outcome, we think, is that the tendency to chase after fads and fashions will disappear, and being able to tell what actually works and what is experimental (or at least belief-based) will be more common. It seems to me that if we are serious about data, and serious about making better decisions, then we all need to look at what we are doing to ask some difficult and dirty questions.
In his recent papers and presentations, Rob Briner from the Centre for Evidence Based Management (http://www.cebma.org/) raises important points about the data behind employee engagement. In particular, what we really mean when we say “engaged employees” and whether we really know if performance is an outcome or antecedent of what we measure as engagement in most companies. As he mentions in his paper for “Engage for Success”, there is evidence that Engagement matters, but the quality of it varies (it’s mostly commercially generated) and very often Engagement is being measured rather inconsistently across studies. If we were being graded on our ability to create good science as a community (via convergence of thought) then we would get very low marks. This is probably because, as a mostly commercial concept, convergence is something that consultancies have avoided in order to maintain competitive differentiation. Similarly, many organizations are reluctant to have their data externally reviewed (in order to contribute to the wider body of scientific knowledge) because they want to keep their management practices to themselves.

So where do we go from here? Well, first I think we need to separate the concept of employee engagement from other useful tools we’ve created in the areas of employee research and feedback. Then we need to start asking and answering some difficult questions about engagement, involving practitioners and academics if we can. Last, I think we need to develop our story for where things go next and how that journey will happen. It would be foolish to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

So let’s start with some of the tools we’ve created that are actually providing value to organisations (groups of people working together for a set of common goals). Again this is based on my opinion and experience of doing this work over the last 10 years and clearly I have vested interest as someone who runs a business that works with organisations on employee survey projects:

The employee survey process. However often you decide to do it, I think employee surveys as part of comprehensive management information systems are useful. My reasons are: a) they provide assurance for senior managers about the way people are treated further down in the company hierarchy, b) they help to provide a systemic opportunity for employees to give feedback on issues that could be impacting or limiting performance, c) they can help local leaders receive regular feedback about how their behaviour is being perceived in the workplace, d) they provide data about these things rather than relying on our own opinions. Even Google thinks they are a good idea, and notice they don’t mention employee engagement at all.

Non-engagement related survey analysis. When many organisations run employee surveys the most useful insights are not usually about employee engagement at all. They are often about operational issues: how difficult it is to get things done, the problems that teams have with cross-functional collaboration, attitudes towards innovation or safety, the list goes on. Sometimes these things are surprising and sometimes they are not. The benefit is that the survey allows for targeted follow up and investigation on issues that impact organisational effectiveness – real organisational problems. This is a point of view that I share with others. Most of these insights are from customized aspects of the employee survey that are specifically aligned to an organisation’s strategy rather than a model of employee engagement and they are things that the company can actually do something about.

Engagement as a marketing concept. Unfortunately, listening to the opinions of others (and taking them seriously) is often difficult for many people, particularly those in charge. The reasons for that are someone else’s areas of expertise but Engagement has provided a useful vehicle to move regular employee feedback into the mainstream of management practice. If we think of engagement as a catchall for anything related to employee feedback and experiences at work then it’s certainly created a lot of momentum. The problem with this, as many people have commented, is that any definition of Engagement seems to be ok and as a community of practitioners we have struggled to formulate a knowledge base to build on.

Perhaps employee engagement has provided a good starting point for bringing employee feedback data and analysis into the mainstream of HR and management thinking, quite similar to how the MBTI brought personality assessment through to businesses even though there are much better tools available and it has questionable validity. The challenge then is to start to critically evaluate it now, before statements about utility start to outweigh arguments about validity.

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