Employee engagement can be an issue for organizations in a fast-paced digital age. Attention spans are getting shorter and everyone is networked so that people are susceptible to numerous opportunities and greener pastures. Talent attraction and retention has been cited as one of the key factors in business growth.1 An employer of choice has an obvious edge.
Organizations are now well aware of the link between employee engagement and organization success. Engagement surveys are common and organizations pay close attention to annual survey results. Gallup is world renowned for engagement research and I often quote the Gallup finding that the number one reason people leave a job is ‘a bad boss’.
“Employees join companies but leave managers. A Gallup poll of more 1 million employed U.S. workers concluded that the No. 1 reason people quit their jobs is a bad boss or immediate supervisor.” 2
But Engagement surveys have their challenges. Let’s consider three:
C. Engagement meaning different things to different people
A. Validity of Engagement surveys
The assumption is that a digital engagement survey will accurately measure engagement and can lead to improvement strategies; you have engagement covered, right? Maybe not.
I have been told that managers (at a company where department results comparisons are published) pre-agree with staff what the survey questions ‘mean’. Is the survey measuring engagement, or something else?
Looking at the questions in many surveys, I see them as shaping the wrong behaviours, simply by asking certain questions. It comes back to how you define engagement.
B. Effectiveness of Engagement surveys
Getting employees to communicate their impressions via an electronic survey seems rather stand offish. Is the idea of surveying to improve engagement or to track trends. If it is the latter, annual surveys will achieve that, but what are you actually trying to achieve?
Perhaps in my experience, engagement is simply something different. If you want to know if employees are engaged, simply ask them. Will they be honest, you ask? It depends. The way you can tell if people are really communicating freely is if you as leader encourage criticism from anyone.
What if the leader seeking the communication is actually the problem? For those who still doubt how prevalent this problem is, CultureAmp attempted to debunk the idea that people leave managers, not companies but what they found actually proved it.3 But if your organization doesn’t have checks and balances and a bad manager continues without redress, no engagement survey will help. (Nor will 360-degree surveys!) When you have the necessary checks and balances in place, you realise that Engagement surveys may well be superfluous.
I get the value of benchmarking, trends and comparisons but I see that as more applicable to measuring the engagement of customers and markets not colleagues.
C. Engagement meaning different things to different people
This comes back to the philosophical reference framework of those designing the questions. I take the view that engagement is a function of internal motivation not hygiene factors.4 Question sets that I see put too much emphasis on coffee machines and recreation areas than the hard-edged elements that determine engagement. Those hygiene factors may prevent disengagement but they won’t foster engagement.
I started working with a client earlier this year with a disengagement issue causing disruptive resignations. Getting employees to complete a survey would have only confirmed what everyone already knew. Instead, I used a very hands-on approach and used one-on-one interviews to not only assess how bad things were, but also to find out why and identify actions that people were prepared to commit to for improvement. Six months later, there is retention of the right people with the right ethos.
I used six factors to guide this hands-on research. These have been consistent in engaged groups, and absent in disengaged groups, in organizations I have observed in a wide range of countries, cultures and type of enterprise over many years.
This is the extent to which people feel valued. It includes what is noticed and acted on by those seen to be in power. It includes mechanisms to respond to concerns and routine individual/team and organization timeouts (to decompress if needed), review how things have gone and plan the next steps. (This is similar to the Impact factor in Google’s Project Aristotle. 5)
This is the atmosphere, how people treat each other and are welcomed when they first join. It has to do with how people feel working together and mutual respect. (This is the Psychological Safety factor in Google’s Project Aristotle.)
This is how work is organised/allocated, workflows and being able to get things done efficiently. You can see you are getting somewhere and achieving.
Fit is how appropriate the match of capability to tasks. In an attempt to get this right, some tech firms encourage self-selection to teams and to roles. It includes regular review to account for scope creep.
This is a key engagement factor – the extent to which the organization values stretch and growth (along the lines of Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset 6). It refers to how systematically the organization requires people to step up and develop. (Mentoring and coaching has been found to be of more value than a salary increase.7)
This is both noun and verb. Disengagement frequently comes from organization impediments that simply get in the way of people doing their jobs.
This is the infrastructure/architecture stuff that supports people adding value, and having visibility of their impact. It includes regimens of planning and retrospectives, continuous improvement and the readiness to change if something isn’t working. It also includes story telling – internal marketing to ‘keep the romance alive’.
Some of these elements may be seen as hygiene such as Work Environment and Organization. My focus in both areas is internal to the human psyche: human reactions to fear and threat on the one hand and to frustration (impediments to goal achievement) on the other.
When these 6 elements are collectively managed by everyone, with agreed actions to improve where needed, the organization (and the individual) performs to potential. Without people performing to potential, no organization can thrive.
- The Global Skills Shortage. SHRM. 2019 https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/trends-and-forecasting/research-and-surveys/Documents/SHRM%20Skills%20Gap%202019.pdf
- “Employees don’t leave Companies, they leave Managers” by Brigette Hyacinth. Published on December 27, 2017. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/employees-dont-leave-companies-managers-brigette-hyacinth
- “People leave managers not companies.” Lighthouse blog post https://getlighthouse.com/blog/people-leave-managers-not-companies/
- Frederick Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory. https://managementstudyguide.com/herzbergs-theory-motivation.htm
- Google’s Re:Work. https://rework.withgoogle.com/print/guides/5721312655835136/
- Mindset – Updated Edition: Changing The Way You Think To Fulfil Your Potential. Professor Carol Dweck. 2017. Constable & Robinson Ltd. https://www.amazon.com/Mindset-Updated-Changing-Fulfil-Potential-ebook/dp/B01M036N60
- Motivating people: Getting beyond money. McKinsey Quarterly. November 2009. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/motivating-people-getting-beyond-money
Cherri Holland is a performance and change specialist whose focus over the last 20 years has been a ‘partnership approach’ to business success. Influenced by leaders running successful staff-driven businesses, she has moved hundreds of groups past entrenched ways of working into self-leadership, high performance and flow.
Described as commercially-savvy, engaging and inspirational, her clients have consistently said their high expectations of change outcomes have been exceeded.
Cherri has sat alongside leaders undertaking organisation-wide transformation to develop a staff-driven, high performance culture. She co-designs solutions with people which avoids the natural resistance to externally-imposed models (leading to costly failure of change programmes). Drawing on both neuroscience and neuromarketing, she mobilizes unused reserves for a positive response to market pressures and/or technology disruption.