Is it time to move beyond engagement?

I am not a number

In recent years an increased focus on employee engagement, along with the accompanying surveys, has corresponded with increased recognition of the importance of the human side of organisations. That the form of workplace that treated people as numbers and saw making profits as its sole objective has been broadly rejected should be applauded, but does measuring engagement really answer the question?

Most organisations have some sort of tool or system to measure engagement, usually based around employee surveys. The vast array of data, baselines, and ‘longitudinal’ (trend) data that these surveys provide, can prove irresistible to organisations. The results of these often make their way into leadership teams’ goals, amplifying the attention these metrics receive.

Yet, other than a vague sense that more engagement is better than less, how do you know if an engagement level of 67% is good or bad or – more importantly – whether it reflects what you need to execute your strategy effectively? And, seeing how these surveys show individual sentiment at a point in time, how much are the results affected by events (both work-related and personal) at the time of taking the survey? Substantial industries exist around the collection, processing, communication and management of resulting actions every year, but levels of ownership and support for engagement surveys in line management are typically very low.

And then the lights dim …

One senior executive we know was heard saying that “when the time to do the employee engagement survey comes around, the lights seem to dim and all energy leaves the room.”
Little wonder, that engagement surveys can lead to a tyranny of measurement where an excess of data corresponds with a dearth of insight, squeezing out other opportunities to gain more valuable information from your workforce.

It’s also worth pointing out that if an organisation needs a survey to understand employee sentiment, that people feel underpaid or don’t understand the strategy, the basic function of leadership – to listen, communicate and engage with colleagues – has failed. The irony in attempts to remedy a lack of engagement through increased use of data will not be lost on the reader.

Has anyone actually stopped and thought whether there is a better way?

There are three principal problems with how engagement is measured today:

First, engagement is an outcome of other factors: using it as a determinant of future plans is akin to plotting your path by where have walked rather than where you are going. It’s also possible to chase an engagement score without getting to grips with the root cause. The sentiment captured in an engagement survey is a product of the culture, the quality of an employee’s immediate manager and individual expectations. Working on the basis that it’s better to measure something you can directly impact, it doesn’t make sense to measure engagement. Better to measure culture instead.

Secondly, measuring how individuals feel will not help you to understand your culture. To remedy this, many organisations attempt to measure both culture and engagement simultaneously with mixed results, often conflating statements such as ‘I believe we live [insert value of your choosing] well here’ with insights into the extent to which their desired culture is lived. Whilst tempting to combine engagement and culture into a single area of measurement, they are very different things: engagement measures how people are feeling (at the time of taking the survey), culture is about how groups of people behave to get work done. Engagement may correlate with retention, culture drives results.

Thirdly, whilst engagement surveys can be effective at raising some basic issues and instances of poor management, they are often too long and (inadvertently) encourage a sense of learned helplessness by implying that the leadership (or worse, the ‘organisation’) is responsible for how an individual is feeling. This encourages a ‘victim’ mentality and passivity, where blame can be laid elsewhere for anything unsatisfactory. The lack of empowerment and accountability than can result is the opposite to what is originally imagined for these surveys.

There is a better way

Where engagement measures how individuals feel, culture measures how work gets done.

Just as a focus on communication in organisations made way for engagement, so must engagement make way for culture, helping organisations to better understand how work gets done, and therefore how to deliver better results, as well as outcomes for employees.

At Coode, we put culture at the centre of understanding how organisations operate. Tacking on the words ‘and culture’ to engagement surveys is insufficient as understanding that culture works from very different principles. You need to:

1. Focus on behaviours, not values or sentiment

2. Use tools that look at collective behaviours (how groups of people interact), rather than individual preferences;

3. Focus on behaviours that are observable, using everyday language, so managers can engage with the process, link it to their day-to-day work and adapt in practical ways; and

4. Surface factors that have a direct impact on the results of an organisation. Whatever field you are in, how your people interact with each other, make decisions, and how information flows around an organisation, will directly impact your success in both the short and long term.

Taken together, such an approach makes culture accessible to all leaders in an organisation and makes it central to the strategic success of the organisation and therefore to the leadership team’s collective agenda.

Looking beyond an established method of measurement takes courage and is not without risk but letting go of the safety blanket of the annual engagement survey provides leadership teams with an opportunity to move the conversation beyond sentiment, towards the practical. It also elevates the agenda from an annual ‘light dimming’ process to a strategic enabler is central to the success of the enterprise you are part of.

Go on, I dare you.

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