Chief of Research, Workforce Productivity, Organizational Performance
This op-ed was originally published in Halifax's The Chronicle Herald on January 16, 2019.
Employee engagement is a concept that many organizations have adopted as an approach to gain insight on the average employee’s experience in the workplace: what they value, what they like and what they don’t like.
The theory is, the higher the engagement scores, the more likely employees are engaged. This means that they’re less likely to quit, will be more productive and more likely to be positive about the organization to new potential hires.
There’s some evidence to suggest that this theory makes sense, and there often are some positive correlations between engagement levels, retention and productivity.
What may be missing is clarity and a fuller understanding of what an engagement score really means.
To provide context for this conversation, let’s begin with a standard engagement example:
Company ABC uses an engagement survey that has 60 items that measure several factors that have been reported by the survey provider as predicting engagement.
The survey results provide a global percentage score that can be viewed as an overview score cut by location that enables benchmarks to be compared year over year.
Scores of factors and individual question items also are reported in the results package, to provide more colour on what’s bringing the global engagement score up or down.
The results package often reports correlations of what factors are most predicting and influencing engagement. These can be used to help pick areas to focus on.
Company ABC makes an action plan based on results, communicates results to its workforce, and implements an action plan.
The cycle is repeated in 12 months to see what improvement has been made year over year.
The above process focuses on engagement outcomes, not on what the term engaged employees really means.
One reason may be that HR and senior leaders may not be familiar with Gallup Poll 2013 research that reported worldwide, 13 per cent of employees are engaged at work.
I’m betting that most of you reading this have never seen results that suggested only 13 per cent of your workforce is engaged, 63 per cent is not engaged, and 24 per cent is actively disengaged.
Why? Because Gallup is focused on the degree the average employee is psychologically committed to their job and the degree they want to make a positive contribution each day.
What Gallup research suggests is that many organizations are measuring cognitive perceptions versus psychological commitment.
Another way to think of this is the degree of emotional commitment employees have for what they do at work.
What percentage of your workforce comes to work each day because they want to, or think they must?
Want-to-come-to-work employees demonstrate emotional engagement—they have a sense of passion, joy and reward from coming to work.
Must-come-to-work employees are cognitively engaged—they have a more cognitive approach; they see spending the day at work as time tax to get a paycheque.
We all can relate to days when we fell in either option. We also know the days we’re at work just checking off checkboxes, not being very productive. Interestingly, most engagement surveys don’t separate results by “want-to employees” and “have-to employees.”
Most employees who fall in the must-come-to-work-each-day category answer their engagement survey items honestly. For example, they may respond to a factor that measures their direct manager effectiveness like want-to come-to work employees because though they may not be psychological committed or passionate about their job overall, they are OK with their manager.
Meaning some must-come-to-work employees may answer different factors favourable, however, this doesn’t mean that they’re psychological committed or emotionally engaged.
Employees with lower emotional commitment to their jobs are at increased risk for higher levels of sick time and presenteeism as well lower levels of discretionary effort.
Gallup is viewed by many as one of the global standards in engagement research. It seems to me that many employee engagement surveys may be more focused on measuring what employees think rather than what they feel. We’re emotionally-driven creatures; what we feel passion for is what we often push and thrive to succeed in.
Consider adding a factor to your engagement score that’s aligned to the Gallup engagement design, so you can gain insight on what percentage of employees are psychologically committed or, as I have suggested, emotionally engaged.