What if…Engagement is in the Eye of the Beholder?

The Employee Engagement Network currently reports that it has over 6000 members in its on line network. This number represents a fraction of the total number of people involved in what might be termed the Employee Engagement Industry. At the risk of drawing the ire of many of these dedicated and committed people let me share a quote I have been saving for a while that unfortunately serves as a common example of what I think most of the work done on employee engagement to date has taught us.

“Despite what happens to the business environment, smart leaders always understand the importance of employee engagement. In an upswing, engaged employees help an organization leverage the positive environment and deliver incremental returns. In a bad business environment, the engaged employees are the best source of innovations and ideas on how to do best in a deteriorating environment.                                                                                                            Written by Abhishek

 So according to this guy , and I am sure he is a fine fellow (as are no doubt most people involved in this profession), engagement is good, therefore we should have more engagement. If you are a smart leader you know this, you are of course a smart leader aren’t you? So since you know these things and you want more engagement and especially to be recognized as a smart leader you will …Conduct engagement surveys, hire consulting groups to work on your culture, use a technology enabled recognition system, make changes to your policies, i.e., you will spend time and or money or both on doing what you can to improve the level of employee engagement in your organization. This will all be done on the premise that more engagement will lead to higher profits because the research we have done (measuring engagement, which has been defined for you) shows that companies with higher levels of engagement also have many other things more better too! 

There is clear and mounting evidence that high levels of employee engagement keenly correlates to individual, group and corporate performance in areas such as retention, turnover, productivity, customer service and loyalty.    

                         Patricia Soldati quoting from a Conference Board Report


To much of this I must express sincere disappointment. Is it too much to ask that we clarify that correlation and causality are not one and the same and admit that what has been reported as “employee engagement” is fundamentally inference and not necessarily even strong inference, definition or proof of anything.

Back in July of this year I made known many of my own reservations about the expressed beliefs around employee engagement . When I saw Hugh MacLeod’s cartoon in my daily Gapingvoid.com  email on Sunday September 29 I knew why I have been so bothered by the whole subject. Ever since Gallup unveiled its now ubiquitous Q12 Index in the later chapters of ‘First Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently’ employers have been barraged by consultants selling the idea that engagement could be quantified, it could be measured, it was in fact a thing, almost like it has a binary nature, on/off, is/isn’t, am/am not…engaged.

I will in fact willingly agree that we have been measuring something; I am just not sure that it has been employee engagement. Moreover I believe that when engagement is studied at a macro level as it is in survey results we can draw almost any conclusion we want because the data isn’t telling us much of anything useful. It is as if we gathered weather reports from as many different locales around the globe as possible and rolled them up into one generalized global weather report and then decided how to dress for the day.

So I am thinking that engagement is not an “is” at all, nor a thing, so it cannot be measured as has been attempted and reported. What if engagement really looks more like a continuum of being related to what is going on around you and in fact each location along the way represented some state of engagement, temporary in nature and always subject to change…

                                      States of Engagement

 Resistant ß———–à Compliant ß————à Absorbed

   “No”                               “Okay”                              “Yes”

   Fear                                  Need                               Interest

 …and what if each of these states is not a place in time as much as it is a direction at any point in time that was evoked as a response to extrinsic circumstances. And there is no overall way to quantify resistance or compliance or absorbing, it is determined from within the perspective of an individual. What would this then suggest?

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Right! No simple solution is forthcoming without manipulation of the problem itself to make it measurable (in other words marketable) We have taken a qualitative description (engaged) and with the use of some science, in the form of mathematics, attempted to create truth rather than live with the question. 

“…Many—perhaps most—of the great issues of science are qualitative, not quantitative, even in physics and chemistry. Equations and measurements are useful when and only when they are related to proof; but proof or disproof comes first and is in fact strongest when it is absolutely convincing without any quantitative measurement.”      
                                                John R. Platt “Strong Inference”

So what is an employer to do given that we all agree that there is value in engaged employees? Back in July I was going to suggest these steps and I was concerned that they might seem too radical…

  • Suspend the practice of engagement surveys for three years
  • Invest heavily in improved selection and development of managers with an intense and ongoing focus on teaching the skills and understanding of managing to employee’s strengths
  • Abandon most forms of classroom development for managers and introduce workplace based development practices that encourage the creation of collaborative management communities
  • Monitor and qualitatively study unanticipated turnover and don’t use HR to do this.
  • Ask employees how it’s going and accumulate verbatim comments not statistics
  • Stir frequently

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