Simply measuring employee engagement isn’t enough anymore — obviously you want it to deepen and grow, too, and you want to understand how it works in your organization.
Standard employee engagement initiatives have two major problems: inflexibility and irrelevance. And the backlash is coming, so buckle up: here’s how you can create real-life employee engagement without the problems of the standardized model.
We’ve all heard the best practice tip: to get the most valid answers to a survey, you should hire an established employee research agency to ask standardized questions which can be used to create engagement scores. Trouble is, this tip is just as uselessly one-size-fits-all as the surveys it produces.
HR consultancies have their own models for employee engagement surveys, which they implement as standard for every client. The surveys are typically based on 3 to 6 of these standardized questions or statements:
- Are you proud to work here?
- Would you recommend our products/services?
- Would you recommend the company as a great place to work?
- Are you willing to go the extra mile for this organization?
- “I’d like to be here in 12 months.”
- “My manager inspires me.”
- “I feel valued for the work I do.”
The answers to all these questions can be limited to make it easy to quantify the responses. The most common answer formats are:
- yes or no
- a scale expressed in numbers (example: 1 to 5)
- a scale expressed in words (examples: “never” to “always”, or “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”)
These quantitative questions are usually followed by a single open question asking the respondent to add any qualitative comments.
But this approach doesn’t work for every company, because it’s too inflexible. If your organization is even a little bit different from the typical enterprise, then a standardized survey won’t fit its purpose.
The answers you get may be valid, accurate and quantifiable — the holy grail of research standards — but they can also be totally irrelevant to your business objectives.
Would you be proud to work for a company that operates in an unethical industry, for example? More important, do you need to be proud to feel engaged? Does pride affect your performance to a significant degree?
For every question in your employee engagement survey, ask yourself, “What does that mean, and why? Does it make a difference?”
What does the answer mean for the employee’s engagement levels? For their productivity and performance? For you as an HR professional? For the company?
Let’s look at one example in more detail: “My manager inspires me.” What does it mean if the answer is positive? Does it make a difference? Maybe it means the manager is a good leader. Maybe it simply means he or she is charismatic.
Does it tell you anything about how engaged the employee is? You could have an inspiring manager and still hate your job.
Does inspiring an employee motivate them to perform better? Inspiration isn’t the same thing as motivation.
What does it mean for HR if an employee is inspired by a manager? You could flag inspiring managers for leadership development, or look at their style for clues to help you develop other managers’ inspirational skills. But that’ll only boost inspiration, not necessarily engagement. You still haven’t learned how the employee responds to inspiration, or if that response is typical of all employees in your organization.
Your employee surveys let you establish an overall engagement score, a KPI to measure the company by. But if you’re running surveys without adapting them to your organization’s specific context and objectives, you risk creating a false sense of insight.
That false insight leads to the wrong decisions and ultimately drives the wrong behavior. You end up developing inspiring yet ineffectual managers, instead of more pragmatic yet productive leaders. Your employees feel questioned but not listened to, emotionally committed to the job but not to the company.
And yes, it is easier for managers to game the system if every employee gets the same 5 questions. It happens. (If you don’t think it could happen in your organization, we applaud your optimism but we also suggest you re-evaluate it.)
Employee engagement needs to be decoupled from performance-related metrics and viewed in its own light. Until your organization finds a better way to prove it's listening to its employees, you can’t draw true insight from the results of your employee surveys.
Benchmarks can spell similar trouble. Are you sure they are relevant to your company at this specific point in time? Do they reflect the unique challenges your organization may be facing and really represent an accurate yardstick?
The most fatal flaw of the standard employee engagement model is that it doesn’t establish the logical consequences of each metric. And logical consequences are what you need to make the right decisions.
The only way to overcome this problem is to design your employee surveys with the consequences in mind from the beginning. There’s no point including a question if you don’t know what you’re going to do about the answer!
At the very least, you can plan to follow up by asking extra questions targeted at specific segments of employees according to the answers they gave in the main survey. Sometimes that’s all it takes to get a true understanding of how things work at the employee level.
If you are curious about how to design and implement a successful employee engagement initiative in your organization, contact us today! Or, if you have comments or questions, reach out to us on Twitter or Facebook, or email us anytime. We'd love to hear from you.