The biggest mistake we've made in employee engagement

At a previous company I worked at I had zero input into the quarterly employee engagement survey HR rolled out. And I'm glad. It followed an acquisition as a way to show we were all "one company." Every employee was asked about 20 questions that were completely ambivalent to what the company did or the market we competed in. And each employee was asked the same 20 questions every single quarter.

When the first one came out, HR celebrated 87% employee engagement. I asked, "what does this mean?" The answer was that 87% of our employees answered agree, mostly agree or strongly agree on the questions asked. Huh. The next quarter? 82%. The next quarter? 75%. The next quarter? 70%. 

"Anything above 60% is world class," HR touted.

"World class what?" I replied. "But by the time you figure it out, we'll be below 60% anyway." 

Why the decline? Nothing happened. Participation was high but the feedback didn't change anything. The focus was on the engagement percentage. It was deemed a success. But we know it wasn't successful. There's a difference. 

The engagement mistake isn't in the effort

I've been on a bit of an employee engagement rant of late. I've become a skeptic - not to the act of employee engagement. I genuinely believe that most employees do work hard and want to do the right things and (most) leaders act in the same way. Reports show that engaged employees are safer, more productive, impactful to the bottom line and can even increase shareholder return, among many other positive outcomes.

But we already knew that deep down, didn't we? We know that employees who cared for the company's and their coworkers' well-being are willing to put forth extra effort. They don't take the "that's not my job stance," like some of their disengaged counterparts. We knew that, yet we needed Gallup, Edelman and so forth to tell us. We knew that just by working with people who the engaged ones were and the ones that weren't.

The engagement mistake is in the number

The mistake is in the number. It's the lie companies tell themselves when they report employee engagement statistics. Company A will say, "we have 90% engagement." Company B will say, "we have 45% engagement."

Does this mean that Company A has twice the engagement of Company B? 

Does this mean that Company A's employees care more than Company B's? 

Not at all. Here's why. 

It's because we don't even know what these numbers mean. Employees at companies A and B have taken completely different surveys where completely different employees in completely different environments are asked completely different questions. And these questions are also likely being asked on a 1-5 scale that has no other meaning than a 1-5 scale or the ever popular "strongly disagree to strongly agree" sliding scale. One person's 4 is another person's 2. Yet we are summing them all up into one big convenient number for companies and leaders to trot out. All of the answers are being aggregated into one simple convenient number that has no meaning whatsoever. 

I cringe when these numbers are shared or bragged about. It's not that there's any ill intent by sharing. But when I hear that companies are world class in engagement based on a score, I assume this company also has rainbows and unicorns roaming the campus. I need to see it to believe it. 

With regards to gathering feedback, there's nothing wrong with asking employees questions and taking an interest in their answers. This should be quite helpful to leadership AND employees. If you're not familiar with the Hawthorne Effect, it's a helpful demonstration to how feedback and interest alone can boost productivity. Sometimes just the act of asking can have an engaging effect but employees also become skeptical when their thoughts are not acted upon. 

Corporate patriotism?

To me, assigning an employee engagement percentage is like assigning a number to patriotism. I think we can agree for the most part that people like their native country. So can you assign a number to show how patriotic a neighborhood, city or state might be?

Some people would express patriotism by having a tattoo. Others might proudly fly a flag at their home. Others make sure they stand and remove their hats for the national anthem. Some cheer during the Olympics. And others perhaps take the grandest of efforts and serve in the military. Which is the most patriotic? Which boxes have you checked? If you checked more boxes, does this make you more patriotic?

My point being is that these are all discretionary efforts. We all give back and do more in unique and personal ways. Some people demonstrate employee engagement by referring to new job candidates. Others by showing up early and/or staying late. Some employees show up and simply do the best job they can each and every single day. Does one of these express engagement more than the other?

So what now?

Well nothing I write is going to change CEOs and HR leaders bragging about their employee engagement percentages. You'll still hear engagement numbers being used in recruiting efforts and justifications for certain projects.

But I think a more helpful approach to employee engagement would be one that provides more perspective to employees to let each individual define their own engagement. That score that likes to be shared? That's on an annual basis at a certain time of the year. We know that don't feel the same way about our leaders and employees the same way every year. So why do we let that one survey define something that we know can change even on a daily basis. 

What if there was a way for each of us as employees to define our own engagement and then learn when we are becoming more engaged or less engaged? And what would build into this newfound personal engagement? Activities? Sentiment? Feedback? I'm not sure. 

The risk here would be if a gamification element was added. We've seen in the social media world what can happen when "scores" are applied to individual efforts. And not that gamification is bad, but if people become competitive around it, we know thatethics may come into question. Employees could be engaged, but perhaps in the wrong activities. 

In my "Physics of Employee Engagement" presentation, I identify three main drivers of employee engagement:

  1. Relationship with immediate supervisor
  2. Belief in leadership
  3. Belief in the company

These are just my opinion but they are all very personal to each individual employee. The next time your company has an employee engagement discussion, think about ways you can make employee engagement a more personal topic for your coworkers. 

A year or so ago, IABC asked me for a simple definition of employee engagement. My answer? "Employee engagement is when people give a damn. They care about their company, their coworkers and doing the right thing. You can't assign a number to this and it's entirely personal. Let's bring this into the employee engagement discussion. . . and not a percentage.