2015 photo of Cathy Missildine, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Member

Cathy Missildine, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Member

I can remember the days when employee survey vendors claimed that employee engagement data was an organization’s secret weapon.  All a company had to do was to deliver a 12 question survey to its employees and pay attention to those employees that were engaged and figure out what was going on with the unengaged.  This formula spelled success!  After all, happy people equal happy customers, correct?   I believe the answer to this question is, not necessarily.

I believe HR professionals waved the employee engagement flag without understanding how engagement and motivation work.  Don’t get me wrong I think engagement scores are a great measure when combined with other relevant data including business outcome measures.  Think about a scenario where you have high engagement scores for a department or location but the performance scores like productivity or revenue are flat or declining.   How can we have high engagement and low performance scores?  The answer to that question is somewhat complex as employees are motivated by different factors.  We have shifted from an employee base in the industrial era that were motivated effectively by the stick and carrot system to a knowledge worker base that is more motivated by the nature of the task and the learning of new things.   Dr. Scott Mondore, stated the relationship as follows, “More advanced, cause-effect analysis clearly shows that employee engagement is NOT a driver of business outcomes. (i.e. revenue, profits) Engagement is a nice outcome of improved individual, workgroup and organizational performance—so leaders should focus on drivers of performance/business outcomes and not try to beg employees to be ‘engaged’.

In other words engagement is a situational state of well-being at work not a driver to do more work.   Engagement is not a behavior that can be taught it is intrinsic to each employee.  Also, engagement is a moment in time measure that is very dependent on what is going with the employee and what is going on in the environment.  One day an employee is engaged and the next day they are not.

So with that said, the task becomes understanding the drivers of employee performance, which are linked to business outcomes.  Think about nurses for a moment.  In a hospital, some typical outcomes are quality of care and mortality rates.  When I think about behaviors that drive quality of care I think about, communication with the patient, explanation of medications, simple discharge instructions etc.   Is the nurse’s engagement driving her performance on these tasks or do things like # of patients per day, quality of supervision, training on procedures and work environment.  I would say it could be engagement (intrinsic) and the other factors (extrinsic) but the data has to be analyzed in order to really understand what is driving better outcomes in the hospital.   It could be one, two or ten behaviors that are driving those outcomes.

Let’s compare relying on one data point and going to your Doctor for your physical.  What if the Doctor just focused on blood pressure for your overall health metric?  We all know that we can have great blood pressure but have underlying issues like cholesterol, diabetes, etc. that can cause a bad outcome (heart attack).  It’s the same with engagement data we can have 85% engagement and have declining profits due to tasks being performed the wrong way, the wrong people in the job, and poor supervision and leadership.

So back to our question at hand…Does engagement matter?

I believe it does. It is a very important data point that can be instrumental in understanding how to increase employee performance when COMBINED with other data points like employee performance scores, turnover rates, competency ratings, etc.  If you rely solely on engagement data, you only get part of a story.  I believe engagement data takes the temperature of your workforce and gives clues to questions HR professionals need to ask.  It’s much like turnover data, very symptomatic in nature.  In other words turnover isn’t the root cause of the issue it’s a symptom.  Same with engagement data, its not root cause data but it can give insights as to the opinions of your workforce.

HR professionals that can create insight from employee data will be those that can impact critical organizational outcomes elevating HR from Business Partner to Business Leader.

In conclusion, I would argue that, rather than focus on communicating and tracking engagement, assuming that high scores equate to positive organizational performance, HR leaders should concentrate just as much – if not more – on understanding what motivates people to perform at a high levels that result in better business outcomes.

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