Measuring engagement isn't enough


I had every intention of making today’s post about the measurement of employee engagement. My plan had been to focus on best practices, touching on tools, frequency, logistical considerations, etc. But then I had an unexpected conversation with a friend. The situation she relayed was distressing and frustrating. Sadly, her story is also all too common, and it shoots to the core of what really matters when we talk about engagement.

The organization that employs my friend is a large organization employing around 25,000 people across the region. Based on what I know about the industry, my strong intuition was that they probably do a large-scale employee engagement survey each year, which my friend confirmed with a little laugh. They story she relayed  explained her derision. It included the usual organizational boogie-men – abysmal communication, especially surrounding important and emotionally fused topics such as layoffs and “restructuring”; lack of compassion in implementation of difficult leadership decisions; and failure to manage employee perceptions by constraining local managers from handling things with employees in a manner that is fair and forthright and by allowing the grapevine to disseminate information in a way that is vague and fear-mongering.

As I was listening to my friend, in addition to feeling compassion for her situation, I felt a rising frustration at the disconnect between the lip service that gets paid to the concept of employee engagement and the choices organizational leaders across the country make every day that undermine it. It doesn’t matter whether you do a big engagement survey each year if on a day-to-day basis your employees feel demeaned and disrespected. It doesn’t even matter if you supplement this assessment with quarterly “pulse” surveys linked to monthly scorecards to keep engagement in managers’ line of sight if you simultaneously prevent your managers from treating employees like valued human beings.

This story actually highlights some of the risks of measuring employee engagement. The act of measurement conspires to create an illusion that we are actively doing something. If we can measure engagement with a survey and stick a number on it, it gives us the illusion of precision and tangibility. These illusions together make us believe that we have a handle on things, that we are doing what we need to do in order to promote an engaged workforce. Engagement is much more than a survey.

What are you trying to engage about your employees? Because if you are aiming anywhere other than their hearts, you are probably going to miss the mark. My friend wrapped up her story with a frustrated sigh and echoed our sentiments in previous posts (like this one and this one): that what people really want is to feel like they are valued and that what they do at work matters. People who bring commitment, loyalty, and extra effort and passion to their jobs are not people who are treated like anonymous, disposable inputs.

So go ahead and do your engagement survey – but don’t let that be the end of the story. An engaged workforce is led by an engaged, compassionate leadership team who sets the tone and culture. This is much harder work than doing a survey – but if you really want to engage people’s hearts and harness the energy within them, you’ll have to go beyond assessment to insight and action.