Do we measure the right things when we measure employee engagement?

Posted by Domna in Measuring Impact on 10th January 2011 | be the first to Comment »

Employee engagement and its relationship to communication and performance continues to exercise practitioners, if the plethora of online discussions and conference presentations is anything to go by. However, as some recent studies (for example from Lancaster Business School and the Work Foundation) show, our understanding of the concept and our ability to measure and manage it effectively remain unsatisfactory. For example, the Work Foundation research argues convincingly that it may be much more appropriate to look at engagement as a multifaceted dynamic process which employees largely negotiate, rather than as a narrow, stable set of performance outcomes which companies can produce through engagement programmes.

As I was putting the final touches to my PhD thesis, I found out that a company I had used as a case study to research how culture influenced the interpretation of values messages by employees had just commissioned an engagement survey from a well known research organisation. Apparently, the scores were embarrassingly low. The company was just coming out of a pretty serious transformation and cost cutting programme which had meant a number of job losses and, for those who managed to hold on to their jobs, considerable changes to team set ups and working practices. Surely, a certain level of uncertainty, cynicism and dissatisfaction with management was to be expected? Still senior managers refused to accept that the picture was as negative as the engagement survey would paint it.

Now here’s the thing. If I had been told this story as a complete outsider I would have assumed that managers were simply resisting the truth; that they had failed to ‘engage’ with their employees during the change and that, now they were rejecting the message that they had contributed to the creation of a deeply disengaged workforce. Instead, I found myself thinking that they were right to doubt the survey results. Not that I believed that the survey was methodologically flawed. I am sure that it measured exactly what it set out to measure in the first place – how happy individual employees were with the organisation and with management at that particular point in time.

My data also showed that at a personal level some employees (but not all) were pretty unhappy with the implications of the changes for them. At the same time, my research uncovered strong shared meanings among employees relating to pride in the business and its reputation, belief in delivering technical excellence and customer service and a fierce loyalty to the brand that was not undermined by any of the personal issues. In short, while many employees appeared to be dissatisfied with the way the change had been managed, they continued to be fiercely loyal to the brand and extremely proud of the kind of work they did. This allowed them to maintain their loyalty to the business and to continue to perform very effectively, despite everything else. Whereas the engagement survey picked up on the former, it completely missed out the latter, thus presenting only half of the story. No wonder leaders were unwilling to accept the survey results as a true picture of the organisation they themselves were proud of.

See also “Rethinking Engagement: Lessons from the Work Foundation report on the Employee Deal