I am so over employee engagement!

By Sarah Johnson, PhD - July 17, 2015

I have spent the last month or so creating content for a workshop that Jack Morehouse and I will lead at the Human Capital Institute’s 2015 Employee Engagement Conference (July  27-29 in San Francisco).  The workshop is about surveys (naturally) and it has become nearly impossible to talk about surveys without also talking about employee engagement.

Fair enough.  So I have been scouring recent research to uncover engagement trends, and lo and behold I find there is disagreement.  Some trends are up, others down.  Engagement scores are at historic highs according to some researchers, but not others.  And the absolute scores themselves are all over the map.  Some companies and researchers talk about “engaged” employees, others focus on “highly” engaged employees.  Then there are “supported” employees, not to mention the “disengaged”, “highly disengaged”, “disenfranchised” and “detached”.  Different labels have different scores attached to them.

The bottom line is that there is no consistency of definition or measurement.  To further complicate matters, Aon Hewitt researchers suggest that slight changes in overall scores mask what can be massive shifts in which employees are engaged and disengaged; researchers estimate that as many as 45% of the employee population shifts from engaged to disengaged or the other way around in a given year.  So while top line results might improve a point or two, that shift can mask significant shifts in the worker population.  Current metrics don’t come near measuring this phenomenon. 

Add in the nearly billion dollars that Bersin tells us organizations spend on engagement programs and all of it becomes a head-scratcher.

What are we measuring?
Is it getting better or worse?
What do we have to show for our investment?

If you look at the current trends, which show relatively small gains in engagement scores, it becomes clear that we have little to show for such a big investment.  So what have we accomplished?

To be fair, the emphasis on employee engagement has been an eye-opener for many organizations’ leaders.  This increased awareness has been valuable in their appreciation of human capital and investments necessary to engage employees in their direction of the organization.  It has given us HR types a rallying cry and metrics of employee engagement joined to EBITDA and other financial metrics on business performance scorecards. 

Is that a bad thing?  No, except at some point someone will notice that the emperor has no clothes.  Engagement may go up or down, often independent of other performance metrics.   And leaders will get impatient when they hear opposing stories about current trends.  How do we explain numbers that don’t add up? 

Listen, I have no real beef with engagement.  I just think that all of us (and that includes me) have been a bit myopic on the topic.  The reality is that the world is a complex place, and more often than not, more than one thing drives another.  To focus on employee engagement as a key driver of organization performance isn’t wrong, but it is overly simplistic and it lacks context.

Organizations need more than engaged employees to be successful.  That sounds so obvious, but many of us in this space have focused on engagement almost to the exclusion of everything else.  Organizations need to provide the tools and resources needed to get work done.  They need to build skills and provide feedback and leadership.  Organizations need to work on processes and procedures and free their staff to spend the majority of their time on work that matters and is engaging.  Strategies need to be clear and enabled with the right staff with the right resources.

Instead of expending resources to drive engagement, organizations should invest in their own processes and procedures.  Fix the issues listed above and solicit more ideas for improvement from employees (guess what…surveys are a great tool here).  If employees can see improvements, can anticipate the success of the organization and find that they too will be successful, engagement will grow. 

We all want to be on a winning team and we all want to contribute to that success.  Engagement is part of organization success, but it makes no sense to focus on it to the exclusion of all the other metrics that join together to create organizational success. 

Here’s my advice:  Rethink your survey process, from the questions that you ask to how you use the data.  Don’t eliminate engagement from the equation but minimize it and emphasize the other elements that drive organizational success.  Don’t focus on the drivers of engagement, but rather on the barriers to success.  Drive those metrics and observe how engagement will come along for the ride.

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