We are engaged, can't you see?


Posted by May Lee - 17 August, 2018


Do you know why you measure Engagement?

At our recent culture clinic, we asked a room of 50 professionals “How many measure Engagement?” nearly all hands were raised.  Then we asked “Who here measures Culture?”, only ten hands remained.  Our final question sealed the deal, “Who measures both Engagement and Culture?” more hands went down.  Of all the people in the room, only three people measured both Engagement and Culture.   

Who measures both Engagement and Culture?”

When we explored why Engagement was so popular, there were similar reasons amongst the group but also similar frustration relating to the results not reflecting the reality of the workforce views and not answering some of the issues employees face.  In discussions we found there is a point where the data becomes ‘saturated’ and the response to Engagement results were no longer creating the right change in behaviours. 

Of those who measured both Engagement and Culture, its debateable whether placing culture specific questions into an Engagement survey constitutes a culture measure, but let’s save that discussion for another day.  In practice, a number of organisational realities keep Employee Engagement metrics entrenched as an organisational metric, but do we know the reasons for why?   Let’s think about this further.

Engagement is not Culture

In previous blogs on this topic we have drawn the theoretical distinction between Engagement as defined asthe extent to which employees commit to something or someone in their organisation, and how hard they work and how long they stay as a result of that commitment.” Whereas Culture can be defined as the patterns of behaviour that are encouraged, discouraged or tolerated, by people and systems over time.  Engagement provides a gauge on emotional connection individuals have to the organisation, but not why whereas culture diagnostics reveal the why?   In practice, Engagement results have been the mainstay for organisations and as shown by our attendees, remain the dominant metric for many. As cultural experts, we too agree Engagement data can provide some cultural insight.  However, there is a limit to how much we can interpret and infer from Engagement data, and trying to use it beyond ‘its original intended use’ is, as our culture clinic attendees indicated, a frustrating and confusing exercise.

Engagement is a lagging indicator of culture

As a lagging indicator of culture, engagement data can be a useful indicator.  Here are some of the reasons why Engagement remains a popular measure (and you may recognise some of these from your own experience):

Engagement is a lagging indicator of culture

  • Easy to measure,
  • Simple to understand,
  • Concise model
  • Other organisations use similar measures so benchmark is possible (think “keeping up with the Joneses”),
  • Its trackable and easy to monitor and manage from staff level to Board level,
  • Quick to set up and get a result, and therefore can seem to be a cost effective metric.

In fact, it’s become so entrenched in the HR annual cycle, that for some it’s a KPI that cannot be missed and the routine of the survey has become the annual “tick-a-box” exercise, or treating the survey as an opportunity for the yearly emotional cleanse for whatever has transpired through the year!  Is this really how to understand the culture of our organisation?   So, what are some of the downsides?

Engagement is not Culture

  • Time-specific data and quickly outdated. For many, by the time the results are communicated and cascaded the team has changed, restructured to take on new roles and likely to have a different manager ….in other words the data no longer reflects the reality of the organisation;
  • Respondents tend to be more susceptible to ‘impression management’ and may game the system, by inflating or deflating their ratings because they want to send a strong message or are concerned about the confidentiality of the process. Tying manager’s incentives to scores, can exacerbate this behaviour in respondents.
  • The Engagement model focuses on the connection between the individual and the organisation (not about the organisation itself), which means there will be vast differences across the way people rate survey items as well as their actual Engagement levels. Technically, the actual Engagement model within an Engagement survey will consist of a handful of questions, the rest of the questions vary in usefulness and depend on the organisation’s appetite for data. These other questions are actually not related to calculating the Engagement result but are considered ‘indirect’ influences which means these are less accurate when it comes to understanding what can make a difference to people’s Engagement.
  • The measure of Engagement is considered a “subjective” result and based on an individual’s opinion. For this reason alone, results collected from such an individual perspective have limited relevance when applied in other contexts or used to predict reactions or behaviours of the collective of the organisation in another situation.

Another key point is that Engagement surveys can only measure what the individual “sees” and how they feel about their environment.   

Think of the iceberg analogy (see diagram):    

Behavious Iceberg Beliefs 

Engagement surveys capture views of the ‘visible’ through behaviours whether it be application of policies, procedures or the way people act.   Items are posed as “I” questions within Engagement surveys and how each individual feels about something or someone at work varies greatly which is why Engagement scores are by their very nature volatile and time specific.   Individual career stages and personal life stages will also influence how engaged an employee may be with their organisation.     

It’s very common for Engagement levels to either start to plateau after a time, with results varying little despite continuing efforts in the poor performing areas, or results start to decline despite genuine efforts.   

So, you have to ask is Engagement the right data to understand what is happening beyond the surface?


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Topics: Engagement, Be Do Have, Behaviour, Managing behaviours

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