Employee engagement: emperor’s new clothes?

Introduction

Last week, we held the latest in our series of ‘Evidence Matters’ breakfast seminars, in London. The focus was ’employee engagement’, an extremely popular topic in the HR world. We wanted to get under the skin of this concept, examine the claims made for its impact on people and organisations and start a debate. And thanks to delegates who attended, we had a very enjoyable and interactive session!

Our focus at the Future Work Centre is evidence-based practice and, while it’s a popular topic, we were determined to get past the hype and examine the evidence for the impact of employee engagement. We launched our white paper “Employee Engagement: The emperor’s new clothes?” at the event and you can download a copy here.

Wait. What’s wrong with ‘engagement’?

We argue that there are four central problems with engagement:

  1. There is no agreed definition of engagement. Looking at the photo below, you can see the variety of responses our delegates gave when asked ‘what do you mean by engagement?’. And they’re not alone. A lack of a shared understanding obviously leads to some additional problems, outlined below.

    Defining engagement

    Defining engagement

  2. Leading on from defining engagement, there is the problem of measurement. Employee engagement is primarily ensured using surveys, yet these surveys vary significantly in their contents and focus. If there isn’t agreement on what’s being measured and what’s included in the measurement itself, how can we make any claims about the topic we’re looking at?
  3. Engagement itself overlaps considerably with other concepts, such as employee satisfaction and motivation. In fact, some measures of engagement correlate with satisfaction to such an extent that they’re essentially measuring the same thing! It looks like engagement is really a combination of several existing concepts, not something new and different.
  4. Finally, our review of the literature on engagement illustrates there is very little quality evidence supporting the claims made about its impact on employee and organisational performance. Yes, there are plenty of case studies and ‘thought leadership’, but these do not represent good quality evidence.

So what’s the alternative?

We’re not suggesting that practitioners throw away their surveys and stop asking employees how they feel about work. We suggest you think about the following:

  • Instead of accepting the claims made by engagement advocates, consider the problem you’re trying to solve with an employee survey. If you can’t define the problem, maybe there isn’t one and maybe you don’t need a survey!
  • If you have a clearly-defined problem, and gathering more feedback from employees would help you understand it better, that should guide the design of your employee survey, not beliefs about what you should be measuring.
  • Find out what works in your organisation. Examine the impact employee opinions have on your key metrics – after all, that’s why they’re key. If you don’t find a relationship between satisfaction and productivity, look elsewhere. If you’re looking to increase productivity, that should be your starting point – not an assumption that increasing engagement (whatever that is) will increase productivity (it probably won’t!)
  • There are alternative and better-validated concepts you can measure in the workplace, if they’re relevant. These include employee satisfaction, commitment and motivation. And there are plenty of measures out there you can use to assess them. Don’t assume that because your survey mentions satisfaction that it measures it scientifically. But be warned, the evidence points to these factors having a weak association with either individual or organisational success.
  • Consider the value you’re getting from your employee survey. Are you analysing your data beyond simple descriptive statistics (e.g. 8 out of 10 people think it’s a great place to work). Does the time and effort expended on regular surveys give you any return at all? Be brave and consider changing your approach.

Find out more

You can find out more about this topic and how we can help you address it, by downloading our white paper or signing up for one of our future free events. Check out our events page for more information.

 

1 reply
  1. Carl Eacott
    Carl Eacott says:

    “Engagement itself overlaps considerably with other concepts, such as employee satisfaction and motivation. In fact, some measures of engagement correlate with satisfaction to such an extent that they’re essentially measuring the same thing! It looks like engagement is really a combination of several existing concepts, not something new and different”.
    This exact paragraph can also be directed at Emotional Intelligence (EQ), just replace Engagement with EQ. As Engagement is a combination of existing concepts and constructs, the same applies for EQ, comprised of various traits; then we wonder why there is research published out there showing EQ has no instrumental validity/value when measuring EQ alongside personality traits!

    This really is a wider issue within the discipline of measurement, OccPsych and HR practitioners. During my dissertation literature searches on Assessment Centre criterion validity, I came across the same thing with competencies; there were an enormous amount of them and most represented many different labels of the same construct, rather than different human competencies (i.e. can provide the article(s) if anyone likes).
    So the issue with Engagement is really something that has been going on for years and years, but it seems that the construct validity problem has now become more and more pertinent beyond the realms of academic research and is now being discussed more in terms of the practical implications; especially with Employee Engagement.

    Perhaps this construct needs to be made an example of so academics and practitioners alike, can remember to be more evidence-based and critical in asking: ‘At the core, what is this actually measuring’ and ‘what types of evidence supports its importance to our organisation’…

    This White Paper demonstrates how useful White Papers can be – an excellent read and I hope many practitioners, researchers and advocates of Engagement, Emotional Intelligence and many more ‘fuzzy’ constructs, are put under a more critical and evidence-based lens!

    Thanks,
    Carl Eacott.

    Reply

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