Engagement – Lies, damned lies and employee surveys!

The first appeared in The Huffington Post, 25th October 2013.


Employee surveys are a distraction; they cost a lot of money, produce data of questionable value and waste time and resources that could be better spent on doing business. The problem is they have now become an end in themselves.

Employee surveys have become the equivalent of checking that everyone in the car is comfortable without ever bothering to check the car is going in the right direction, at the right speed and as effectively as possible. Employee surveys have become completely disconnected for their core purpose — improving performance.

The evidence is all around. Organizations seek scores of 4+ (this seems to be the mythical score most organizations aspire to achieve) whilst managers go through the routine of doing what they have to do to satisfy the engagement score sought, hoping not to get too distracted from delivering the business target required.

In his autobiography published in 1924 after his death, Mark Twain wrote “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” He attributed this saying to Benjamin Disraeli, writer, statesman and British Prime Minister in the late 19th century, though there appears to be no traceable record of Disraeli ever having used this phrase. Whatever the origins — it’s an expression entirely suited to engagement surveys.

The two basic problems are: companies have allowed themselves to be distracted by the survey result and forgotten its true purpose, and there is a lack of clarity around what we actually mean when we say an “engaged employee.”

Has history taught us nothing?

It wasn’t until the 1980’s that the term “employee engagement” came into common use although it seems that the concept was understood, if not articulated, well before then.

History shows us that Alexander the Great over 2,000 years before hand understood how to genuinely engage his followers. Alexander led an army of soldiers that were fiercely loyal to him and, unlike most other leaders of his time, he worked hard to build and retain that loyalty. He spent time with his men face to face, listened to their grievances and helped to resolve them, he dressed like them, camped out with them and ate alongside them, none of this was common for a ruler of the period (and too often absent in businesses today). It’s also believed that he paid his men well and on time and it’s known that he personally led them into battle many times. He didn’t ask them to do anything that he wasn’t prepared to do himself. Alexander’s men went ‘the extra mile’ for him. Or as we are now meant to say today, Alexander obtained significant discretionary effort from his men.

Fast forward about 2,000 years to the post-war era and the notion of an engaged workforce has captured the attention of many academics and behavioral psychologists. Abraham Maslow’s theory is well known and understood as are the Hawthorne experiments. Skinner studied the impact of rewards and punishment on behavior whilst Adams developed a theory of fairness and how this affected motivation. Herzberg concerned himself more with job enrichment and, more recently, Meyer & Allen developed the notion of a psychological attachment. These people and the experiments of others have focused on the ultimate goal of improving performance.

In the past, two or three decades ago, the research into this area had increased significantly with many different and often conflicting theories emerging. Over time this has generated much interest in the corporate world resulting in a whole industry focused on helping organizations develop more engaged employees. Somewhere along the line, the purpose of engagement has become severely weakened, and in many organizations – lost.

It’s about improving performance. Simple.

Whatever it means, having an engaged workforce has surely always been about one thing, improved performance! Managers are tasked with improving engagement scores, rather than improving performance through more engaged staff. Engagement and performance are inextricably linked. Engagement cannot be thought of except in performance terms. Engagement without consideration of performance is a waste of time and money. What’s the benefit to a company of having an engaged workforce if it can’t stop the slide towards insolvency? Engagement activities without a link to performance distract people from their core purpose. At best it creates an illusion of progress and at worst it breeds cynicism and mistrust.

We doubt whether Alexander the Great would have bothered with conducting an engagement survey. His men were engaged because of how he managed them. It was an outcome of his actions.

So what do we mean by engagement?

The right people, in the right frame of mind, doing the right things for the benefit of the business, and themselves

Engagement by definition happens on more than one level, what you measure in the survey is typically at one level, whilst what you observe is at another.

The rationale that engagement takes place at the Trait, State and Behavioral levels is well understood, though the fact is frequently overlooked or conveniently forgotten about come survey time, instead companies invariably focus solely on the State level and attempt to measure dimensions such as satisfaction, commitment, involvement or empowerment. They do so because sampling a person’s thoughts, feelings and intentions is easy to do, and because it’s easy to add up, aggregate and average out the responses. It is then possible to tabulate the data and produce variance analyses… and then to set targets for the next survey. However it’s what happens at the behavioral level that really makes a difference in business terms. It’s at this level that we see what people actually do, the actions they take. These are the things that you observe or experience, it isn’t merely about an expression of intent or a desire to do something, it’s about tangible observable behaviors.

When surveyed most people will say they intend to eat more healthily and exercise more often (i.e. they are state engaged in getting fitter), most of them will fail to follow through with the necessary behaviors to do so (i.e. they are not behaviorally engaged). No amount of commitment or positive intent alone will get you fit, you still have to do the right things — you have to behave differently in order to make it happen. So, asking people about their intention or commitment to getting fit, serves no purpose. In the same way no amount of satisfaction, commitment or intent in the workplace is going to deliver an improved business performance. This can only come from what people do. Given most employee engagement surveys measure ‘state’ you can now see how the employee survey serves no real purpose.

Only an employee population that has the right people (trait) in the right frame of mind (state) doing the right things (behavior) for the benefit of the business (improved performance) and themselves can be genuinely engaged.
So next time someone sends you a request to complete an engagement survey, ask them three things.

1) Which customer will benefit?

2) How will this improve the business performance?

3) How will this deliver more value than what I do in my day job? If the answers are poor, respectfully decline and do something more productive.

Dominic Irvine © Epiphanies LLP 2013 All rights asserted