Nice to Have? The Trouble with Engagement

Kate Harper, 05 May 2017

 It’s not about measurement - it’s about insight

Large parts of the UK workforce remain disengaged at work despite years of effort by HR departments to improve engagement scores.

The CIPD’s Employee Outlook Survey shows that only 6% more employees responded positively to the statement

This organisation really inspires the very best in me in the way of job performance” than those that responded negatively.
As businesses keep functioning in spite this (making profits, delivering customer service, increasing their market share), employee engagement may be perceived as a ‘nice to have’ rather than a ‘must have’.

However, Kenexa suggests that a 0.25-point increase in engagement is linked to a 1.2-point increase in economic growth. It names an example in the banking industry in which an increase in the level of employee engagement cascaded into a 6% improvement in sales relative to target.  

To assume that engagement is just a ‘nice to have’ is foolhardy.

Being engaged vs doing engagement

So why are HR efforts failing to produce a significant upward swing in engagement?

Firstly, are we measuring and testing the right things?

Secondly, are we driving insight from the things we are measuring in a way that allows us to take action?

Professor Katie Truss (see the CIPDs Future of Engagement Thought Piece Collection) argues that academics have primarily focused on the psychological state of engagement (being engaged) while practitioners focus on engagement as an approach to managing the workforce (doing engagement). Peter Cheese provides a useful way of aligning these two perspectives:

Even though managers and leaders cannot directly control the engagement of others, how they behave, the work environment they create, the support and encouragement they give to their teams and the trust they engender are clearly all critical.

Gallup’s Q12 measure of engagement, the template on which so many of today’s surveys are based, reflects these issues and is concerned with aspects of employment which have the capacity to make employees feel engaged or disengaged. They also demonstrate a link between their 12 questions and employee and workgroup performance.

But are these the right things to measure in all organisations?

Question selection

Question or theme selection typically comes from analyses which have sought to identify key drivers of engagement. Towers Watson suggests they are leadership, goals and objectives, workload and work/life, image and empowerment.

Deloitte’s model suggests meaningful work, hands-on management, positive work environment, growth opportunities and trust in leadership. But are the same measures relevant for every business?

Professor Paul Sparrow has long argued that the ‘recipe’ for linking engagement to organisational performance cannot be copied across sectors or groups of employees because what engages one group of employees might not engage another. So how are organisations meant to know which set of criteria to choose?

Data danger

All too often reporting on engagement surveys focuses on analysing data in isolation: determining on which dimensions the organisation is performing well, understanding differences by department, and exploring which factors have the most impact on the engagement score.  

This might tell us how well the organisation is doing things to make employees feel engaged but it won’t challenge whether these are the right things to be doing in the first place. Equally it won’t tell you anything about the psyche of different groups or individuals.

Ultimately, it only really measures the relationship between what the organisation thinks is impacting on engagement and an artificial construct – the engagement score itself.  

It misses what is really interesting: how well is engagement correlated with profitability, ROI, net promoter score, customer service, individual performance? How does it relate to employee turnover and absence? Which aspects of engagement are specifically linked with different aspects of performance and which engage some groups more than others?

In other words, without factoring in other business metrics into the analysis the ability to determine what really matters to the organisation is lost.

Meaningful for HR

By extending the analysis of survey outputs employers can start to truly understand the relationship between engagement and business performance, and to understand which engagement factors influence positive outcomes, and which appear to make little contribution. This means the organisation can refine and develop future iterations of the survey to focus more on the things that really matter.  

HR will be better prepared to answer important business questions: what business factors contribute most to retention of HiPos? What factors contribute most to staff absence? What factors might we need to address to improve net promoter scores? What contributes most to customer service excellence?

By taking an approach that always links engagement with business performance we can start to understand which factors are important to test, and to develop surveys over time as our insight and understanding of engagement grows.

About the author

Kate Harper Head of People Analytics, Capita Talent Consulting

Kate Harper

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