Measure Employee Engagement at your Peril

Diverse group of culture and age people engaging in a office meeting room

If motivating and engaging employees were straight-forward the world would be a more profitable and happier place.

In an attempt to identify the magic blend of ingredients that produce an engaged employee population, multiple studies have been undertaken by folks who are better versed in the science of such matters than I. In my experience, there is a great deal of overlap in the conclusions of what works, and also an appallingly sad picture that emerges from so many of such completed surveys. I offer here an aggregation of my own understanding, based on such readings and the practical experience of working with people, and the organizations that employ them, for the past 46 years.

Some years ago, I worked for a global beer company. I’d spent three wonderful years helping local managers and shop floor employees in various parts of the world, using a pretty standard template for strategic planning and performance management, to develop their own system to improve efficiency and effectiveness. It included regular one-on-one conversations between boss and employee and team meetings about team goals.

We tried hard to ‘unboss’ the bosses, so they would serve as a resource and coach to their employees. The employees would find their work meaningful because they could see their efforts in the context of the mission of the organization and also in relation to the efforts of employees in other parts of the business. Employees would support each other’s efforts even across organizational silos through the establishment of an internal customer/supplier relationship for all people who worked there. We developed a performance matrix for goals, linking individual and team performance up the hierarchy and across the functions, seeking ways in which to add value, which would benefit company’s stakeholders.

Remarkably soon we could easily show the quantitative results – the quality of the beer improved, the recovery of renewable bottles was most satisfactory, the costs of running the delivery trucks had gone down nicely, and production and sales volumes were up, potentially exceeding targets. But because the focus had been so strongly on developing alignment and integration of effort, we needed to distinguish the employee contribution from the other variables – did we get good ROI on our performance alignment systems input? And so, we got into the Employee Effectiveness and Engagement survey business.

For the surveys to be scientifically valid, we had to ask the exact same questions every year. In the third year the push-back came: ‘You keep asking the same questions – it’s a waste of time.’ To my mind, the surveying had become counter-productive. I saw six flaws then, and I still regularly come across them in diverse workplaces from cement plants to universities and municipalities. It is amazing how the same mistaken assumptions and short-cuts keep compromising the bests efforts of well-intentioned leaders. I share these insights in the hope that they will provoke some reconsideration of how and what we measure and, equally important, what we do afterwards.

The Fact The Flaw
In order to secure honest input, employee survey results can be reported only in classes of respondents that are big enough to ensure anonymity. The findings are generalized. This practice gives a big picture answer but the leader who has a team of four disengaged employees won’t necessarily see how she’s pulling the numbers down.
The use of questionnaires is efficient; yes, however, it is de-humanizing. The individual becomes a fraction of a statistic. Aggregation de-personalizes. Disengagement becomes probable.
People get bored answering the same questions every time the survey is repeated. They stop paying attention to the questions and give rote responses.
By asking questions we create expectations. Employees think: “Surely you’re asking these questions because you’re going to improve the things that we tell you need improvement.” Failure to provide feedback to employees’ input is disrespectful and, as the months go by and nothing changes, the attitude hardens. There are more cynics in the lunchroom.
Engagement measurement is typically undertaken and reported on as distinct and separate from the hard, quantitative business measures. Correlation isn’t always readily evident within the organization. We extrapolate from different and separate data sources to draw our conclusions without truly understanding the cause and effect relationship between them.
Managers are ‘performance managed’ on their employee engagement scores. The score becomes the focus, not the experience of authentic engagement with employees. “If I hold weekly staff meeting in which we can discuss the sales figures and give them pep talks on stuff like health and safety that should improve my score next time, right?”

I don’t believe that my insights are unique. I imagine there are people and organizations that have grappled with and overcome these issues. I haven’t met them yet, but I would love to hear about their successes.

Maybe motivating and engaging employees is more straight-forward than you think? Learn what this has to do with Authentic Leadership and why that is crucial to your business success by watching/reading this GAIA Insights webinar recording or Teal Paper.

Listen to vimeo recording online (1 hour).

Read the GAIA Insights Teal Paper (14 pages). This Authentic Leadership Teal Paper is the first of a mini-series in which GAIA Insights will deep-dive into the ‘Why‘, the ‘What‘ and the ‘How‘ of Authentic Leadership.

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About the author

Delphine du Toit

The services I offer can be seen through two lenses: 1 - getting back to the core in people management so that employee engagement and performance alignment are two sides of the same coin. 2 - when conversations go bad and tension builds, I help to restore relationships damaged by unresolved conflicts. (lenses 1 and 2 often work in unison).

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