Instead of Driving Engagement Higher...Let's Just Try Not to Kill It

By Sarah Johnson, PhD - July 10, 2017

There are a handful of truths when it comes to survey data.  The higher the employee is in the organizational hierarchy, the more favorable they tend to be in their responses.  Survey results in Japan are almost always less favorable than those in India.  And short service employees, those very new to your organization, are the most engaged and most favorable on nearly all survey questions.

The latter truth is very resilient and I have seen the pattern in nearly every survey I have worked on in the last 25 years.  Plotting survey scores by length of service generally yields one of two patterns, either a “U” shape or a hockey stick.  The “U” pattern has engagement and survey scores dropping fairly rapidly after the first year of service, reaching its nadir by mid-career.  The definition of mid-career varies by company.  Companies that have a tradition of lengthy employment relationships with employees will see the bottom at about 10 years.  Companies that often hire talent at mid-career or expect staff to cycle through the organization after just a few years of service show a bottoming out at 3-5 years.  The “U” shape is completed with longer service employees providing higher engagement and more favorable scores, though generally never as positive as during the first year with the company.

The hockey stick pattern starts off just as the “U” pattern does, with high scores from early service employees dropping off after the first year.  This pattern, however, doesn’t show a recovery in survey scores later in employees’ careers.  The scores fall and remain at lower levels.

So what’s behind this pattern?  Why are employees so engaged before they even start their jobs and what is it that organizations do to drive their engagement down? 

Think back to your early days with any of the companies you have worked with over the years.  The hiring process is a bit like a courtship.  You like them, they like you.  Your conversations and interactions take on a more serious and involved tone as they progress.  You both decide you are interested in a long-term relationship and they propose.  You are thrilled!  They are everything you are looking for (well maybe not everything…some of us settle) and the courtship moves into a more settled commitment.  Your expectations for this new relationship are very high as are theirs.  You have each presented your best features and made the best impression possible. 

The first few weeks and months together are great!  So much to learn, so many possibilities.  It truly is a honeymoon.  But as the polish and shine tarnish a bit reality begins to set in.  You might not be able to work on the most interesting projects.  There may be a bit more administrative bureaucracy than you thought.  As a newbie your great ideas may not carry as much weight as those from colleagues with more years of service.  It might be harder than you anticipated to get the resources and cooperation from other groups needed to accomplish your objectives.  And senior leaders may not be quite as clever as you had thought.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is when engagement begins to flag.

At this point most companies would implement plans to build morale and drive engagement higher.  But wouldn’t it be easier to find ways to keep already high morale high?  Just as many of us put on a few pounds after entering marriage or a committed relationship, it’s a lot harder to lose the unwanted pounds than to than it is to not gain it in the first place.  So what’s a company to do?

Classic literature in the field of Industrial/Organizational psychology (Dan Ilgen and John Wanous…look it up) talks about the importance of realistic job previews and enriching early career experiences in driving performance, satisfaction and retention of talent.  It’s likely that your new employees had a view of your organization and their future experience that wasn’t entirely accurate.  Their initial assignments may be too routine or not clearly linked to the organization’s success.  Your organization culture may be one that values “paying dues” in the company before granting employees leeway in presenting ideas and leading projects.  Or new employees may be surprised and stunned by how difficult it is to get work done in the organization.  The point is that something is killing their engagement, and it takes less than 2 years, on average, to do that.

Put yourself in the shoes of your newest employees.  What changes between the time they are hired and when their engagement starts to fall?  What do they experience early on in their careers?  Focus on the barriers to engagement, the elements of your workplace that gradually chip away at the enthusiasm and energy that new employees bring to your organization. 

There is nothing wrong with putting plans in place to drive engagement higher.  But don’t squander the gift of high employee engagement that your newest employees give to you.  Consider putting plans in place to maintain the enthusiasm and engagement your newest employees already have.

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

 

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