As I begin a new series on employee engagement, it’s important for me to say this now. I believe in the power of engagement and its relationship to happy, productive employees. When I am engaged, I get into the “flow”—a term coined and made famous by the great Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I become relaxed, time flies and my performance is greatly enhanced. 

Even so, I have a problem with the construct. As an industry, we don’t know how to measure engagement. We are growing tired of the lack of insights gained, inability to have a true impact on the business and of forcing action planning that employees despise. We are tired of following trends rather than discovering our own unique strengths and weaknesses. For those reasons and many more, the annual engagement survey has outlived its usefulness.

It is time that this process, like so many others before it, evolve or find itself on the extinct list. Accordingly, I created a short list of reasons why measuring employee engagement is at best ineffective and at worst a waste of time, energy and company resources. Part one touches on how the way we measure engagement is pushing us further from our goal of improving employee efficiency, retention and engagement. Read on so you can protect yourself and your organization:

HOW DO YOU MEASURE THAT? 

When playing the measurement game, one of the first rules is establishing an operational definition for the variable we’re interested in measuring—a common definition we can all agree on. Without agreement, everyone claiming to measure the same thing will end up with different scores and outcomes. When that happens, we’re left with the question: What are we really measuring?

I have spent a lot of time researching, measuring, and applying theories and practices about employee satisfaction and engagement. I have met and worked with countless survey and engagement firms, only to realize none of them measure engagement the same way. None. 

For example, Gallup’s Q12 Assessment will tell you having a best friend at work is a key indicator of engagement. On the other hand, [former] IBM Kenexa Assessment never mentions the concept of friendship. It defines engagement as a combination of pride, advocacy, loyalty and satisfaction.

If we are all truly measuring engagement, I would expect the same or similar outcomes between firms and surveys. For the time being, we are using information measured without a common definition to attempt to influence our business outcomes. So really, what are we measuring? 

CORRELATION DOES NOT EQUAL CAUSATION 

Back to the basics. After diving into the flaws of the measurement process, people usually want to jump straight into the deep end of statistics and theory behind the scenes. At this point, they point out—sternly, might I add—all the ways engagement predicts business outcomes including performance, attraction and retention. They have forgotten that engagement is indeed correlated with business outcomes, but that it is miles away from it causing them. 

Here’s an example. Over the course of nearly a decade, the divorce rate in the state of Maine has nearly a perfect correlation with US margarine consumption per capita. Now, obviously we know that margarine consumption doesn’t cause divorces in an individual state. However, this same circular reasoning still haunts the world of engagement research. 

Think about this. Engagement is correlated with positive business outcomes, but so are a lot of other things. Does engagement lead to business success, or does being part of a healthy and successful business lead to engaged employees? When a company is doing well and earning large profits, leaders are happier, compensation is better and ultimately, employees are much more satisfied/engaged. But wait! In this scenario, it appears that business success is leading to engagement instead of engagement leading to success. Alas, we arrive at the chicken or the egg dilemma. 

Unfortunately, there is no definitive meta-study or commonly accepted belief on this circular debate. Much like the way we ask about engagement, this leads us to wonder if engagement is the right measure to predict outcomes, or if there are other, even better measures we have yet to find.

**But it’s not all doom and gloom, there is a way to use employee feedback to shape culture, align EVP, define information paths, and cut wasted resources. There is a disruptive model that goes far beyond the traditional survey approach (engagement, benefits, leadership development, etc.) and provides more practical information for workforce development. Want to know more? Sign up or give me a call to find out more or to demo WPA.**