Recognise this scenario? A leader, or group of leaders, decide they need to do something about this thing called employee engagement. So they give the job to a bigwig in HR to look after. The HR person – being an HR person – gathers more HR people together to form a project team. They bring in an outside consultancy and everyone agrees that what they need is a staff survey. So they take many months and lots of money to decide what questions the survey should ask. Then they launch the survey with some nicely branded posters and they use comms people to spread the word that “your opinion counts” and “now’s the chance to have your say”. Months later the survey results come out and groups of managers go into huddles to try and work out what they mean. Knowing that they should do something about the results (but not too much because there are more important things to do), the managers create action plans, usually involving going back out to re-survey or “drill down” (even worse … “deep dive”) into the original survey findings. Focus groups are set up to ask people what they meant in the survey and what should be done next. By now, probably nine or ten months have passed since the topic was first raised and absolutely diddlysquat has been done to actually improve employee engagement. And the next annual survey is fast approaching.
I know comms and HR people obsess about measurement, but y’know, sometimes surveys aren’t the answer. I once had a boss – a global CEO – who insisted that the best survey tool for employee engagement is your stomach. “I don’t need expensive surveys to tell me what my gut can tell me for nothing” he once told me. He was partly right, I think. You see, if you link employee engagement to a survey you psychologically align the activities with the measurement cycle. The survey becomes the driver – “if we do this we’ll improve our scores”. Now you might say that’s OK, because what gets measured gets done, right? But no, the trouble with this is that surveys rarely tell you anything about employee engagement. They give you a snapshot of employee satisfaction, and maybe a dipstick guide to the general climate, but employee engagement is much more nuanced than that. Engagement is a very individual thing. What engages you may not engage me. What engaged me last week may not get me going this week. If a worker is feeling ‘engaged’ they have a sense of fulfilment, emotional connection, creativity, autonomy, meaning and flow in their work. The key word there is ‘sense’. It’s not something that can be explained. No survey is going to do it justice.
People can’t usually explain why they are engaged, or disengaged. They often don’t even know if they’re engaged or not. It may take leaving to realise that, actually, they were engaged where they were. Or they may find true engagement in one role and suddenly realise what they’ve been missing. No, the key to building engagement is doing stuff, not talking about stuff, or measuring stuff. Companies with high engagement don’t suddenly unleash half-cocked initiatives two weeks before the annual survey. They don’t have employee engagement as the last item on the leadership meeting agenda. They don’t even use the words. They just make it part of what they do every day, at all levels. True engagement is when the goals and values of the organisation match the goals and values of the individual. Look at the most engaged workforce in recent years – the Olympic Games Makers of London 2012. You didn’t need a survey to tell you how engaged they were. It was written all over their faces. We should stop trying to put a numeric value on engagement. How often do you measure the love you have for your children? Or the depth to which you support a particular football team? Employee engagement takes a lot of work to get right and it touches so many areas – environment, culture, purpose, pay, leadership, conditions, innovation, comms, direction, benefits, strategy, personal development, recognition, reputation etc – which is exactly why we need to stop wasting time asking questions and start doing something useful.