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The Truth Is...There Is No Truth

Ask anyone working in an HR function why employee engagement is important to their company and you will get a complete and well-reasoned response.  Pose the same question to business leaders and most will give you a similar response, if somewhat less complete.  The notion of engagement, that sense of commitment and purpose leaders hope to instill in their employees, has become well accepted in the 10 years since the construct has emerged and business and HR leaders alike have become passionate about growing engagement in their organizations.

Ask how engagement should be measured and maximized in an organization, however, and the answers will be all over the map.  A Google image search on “employee engagement models” produces hundreds of approaches to this single construct.  Heads, Hands and Heart; Say, Stay, Strive; Identification, Absorption, Alignment, Energy; Cognitive, Emotional and Behavioral; Emotional Attachment, Rational Understanding and Motivation and Willingness; Loyalty, Involvement and Alignment, to list just a few.  The list of factors that drive engagement in these models is even longer…managers, leaders, careers, job, coworkers, advocacy, sustainability, work/life balance, strategy, confidence in the future, involvement, communications, and organization fit are just the tip of the iceberg.

 So what is the truth?  These different models can’t all be right, can they?

The truth is there is no truth.  Perhaps that is an overly bold statement, but my point is that there are as many paths to engagement as there are types of organizations in the world.  Just as no single strategy or business model works for all companies, no single approach to driving employee engagement works for all companies.

To be fair, there is some common ground.  Engagement encompasses an emotional component and a behavioral component as well.  It’s not just about how we feel about our work and the company we work for, but how we are willing to act as a result of that feeling.  Both elements need to be measured, but there are a variety of ways in which they can be measured, from pride to willingness to stay to recommending the company as a great place to work.  All can work, given the right set of circumstances.

And what about the drivers of engagement?  That is where there is true divergence in thought.  The world would be a simple place if drivers were consistent across all organizations, but the truth is they are not.  Drivers can and do vary across companies and they even vary within companies.  Think that what drives engagement in your executive population is the same as what drives engagement in your production team?  It’s likely not.  Add in the fact that the potential drivers of engagement are limited to the questions you ask on your survey; if you don’t include questions about a topic it can’t be identified as a driver.  Which means that the questions you do ask may take on more importance as drivers of engagement than they should. 

Has this all confused you?  Made you anxious?  It’s really not as complicated as it seems.  In fact, it is simpler than many survey consultants will let on:

  • Implement a metric of engagement that encompasses emotion and action in a way that is meaningful to your organization.   Stick with the measure over time.
  • Measure what matters to success in your organization.  Ask survey questions on topics that represent a balanced approach to the work experience in your company. 
  • And take action…quickly…on those factors that drive engagement.  These actions will likely vary depending on different groups of employees, as one size has never really fit all.

Advanced analytics, statistical models, and colorful graphics are the icing on the cake, but to be honest not every cake needs icing.  These elements are interesting but not entirely necessary and they often distract us and our leaders from what’s most important. 

Ask about what’s most important, then do something about it.  And that’s the truth.


© Copyright Sarah Johnson, PhD, 2014. All rights reserved.

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