city street scene showing people's legs with person wearing monster slippers photo credit Ryan McGuire Gratisography in article about Employee Engagement published December 8, 2015

We’re running a two-day panel here at HRExaminer where we explore employee engagement. Our panel is comprised of six HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributors with strong voices, good ideas, and unique perspectives.

Today’s panel includes Cathy Missildine, Jason Lauritsen, and Paul Hebert.

Our three articles today include:

Join us tomorrow for our second panel on Employee Engagement with Dr. David Kippen, Heather Bussing, and Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic.

Let’s dive in.

Does Employee Engagement Really Matter? by Cathy Missildine

2015 photo of Cathy Missildine, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Member

Cathy Missildine, Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

“HR professionals waved the employee engagement flag without understanding how engagement and motivation work.” – Cathy Missildine

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.

– Cathy Missildine

In Defense of Employee Engagement by Jason Lauritsen

Jason Lauritsen, Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

Jason Lauritsen, Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

Jason Lauritsen provides a checklist for approaching engagement in a way that will yield results.

Regular readers of HR Examiner have gotten a heavy dose of opinions in recent months, labeling employee engagement as “voodoo” and worse. And let’s be honest, there’s a lot of nonsense out there about engagement. But to take the broad position that engagement is “snake oil” isn’t just off base, it’s wrong.

What exactly is Employee Engagement?

The discussion about engagement gets muddy because people talk about it as if it’s a concrete, universally accepted norm of organizational measurement. It’s not. Engagement is a made-up construct, a label created by academics and consultants as a way to describe employee perceptions about the work environment. A single accepted definition of employee engagement doesn’t exist. Hence, a lot of confusion.

However, there’s a common thread underlying every description of engagement I’ve found. It goes something like this:

If the work environment creates a positive experience for employees, then employees are more likely to be committed, favorable, and optimistic about their work.  This increases the probability of better performance (and other desirable outcomes like retention) that the organization cares about. 

That is the value proposition of employee engagement. I could cite statistics from various studies that show strong correlations between certain measures of engagement and financial performance, but that would only incite a debate over correlation versus causation. And that would just give us a headache.

Instead, let’s talk about the why of employee engagement. The underlying idea driving engagement programs is very similar to that of customer research done by our marketing counterparts. If a customer has a consistently great experience with a product, they’re more likely to buy it again and become an advocate. Good customer experience equals better customer. Isn’t this largely the same thing we’re attempting with employee engagement programs?

Is Discretionary Effort a Con? 

It seems to me that some are making the argument that engagement is a Machiavellian attempt by big brother to squeeze more out of each labor dollar by calling it “discretionary effort.” I suppose if we view corporate management as money-grubbing pirates who are out to screw us over at every turn, then I can see how one might be pretty cynical about the pursuit of discretionary effort.

If you instead frame the leaders of an organization as coaches trying to lead a winning team, maybe the idea of discretionary effort feels more appropriate. As the parent of a 17-year-old son who loves to play sports, we’ve been through a lot of sporting seasons.” As the parent of a 17-year-old son who loves to play sports, we’ve been through a lot of sporting seasons. The message he’s received from coaches over the years is almost always the same: “If you want to get better and earn a spot on the team, it’s about going above and beyond.” More practice, more focus, more effort on the floor or the field. Every coach on the planet expects and coaches for this extra (or discretionary) effort on the part of their athletes.

Are the athletes being conned?

In the corporate environment, discretionary effort can look a lot of different ways. It doesn’t have to mean long hours or being a workaholic. Personally, I look for it to show up as passion and courage. I want the discretionary application to come from the heart and mind.  For me, engagement is about creating an environment where people are in love their work and the people they do it with. If I can pull that off, my team gives more. Not because they have to, but because they want to. Is that a bad thing for the employee?

How to make Engagement Pay Off?

It’s an easy target to point out what’s wrong with current HR practices. I’ve thrown my fair share of stones at the likes of performance appraisals, policy manuals, and other practices. But, highlighting what’s wrong without suggesting a solution isn’t particularly helpful.

So, whether you’re heavily invested in employee engagement or contemplating making the investment, here’s a checklist for approaching engagement in a way that will yield results for your organization.

  1. Get clear on your definition of engagement. Remember, there isn’t a universal definition of engagement. It’s going to look different at every organization. What does engagement look like at your organization? Grapple with this question. Get clear. Write it down. Socialize it.
  2. Articulate how engagement will directly impact achievement of company goals. Engagement efforts will quickly be labeled as “touchy feely” HR initiatives if you don’t do this work up front. Ensure the leaders of your organization understand this linkage or it will never become a priority.
  3. Make it about more than a survey.  Measurement is important, maybe even vital, when working to improve an organization. And surveys are powerful tools for measurement. But, the biggest trap that well-intentioned HR pros fall into with engagement is allowing it to be defined as a survey. If I ask your leaders, “Is your organization committed to engaging employees,” what would they say? If the first thing out of their mouth is about a survey, you have a lot of work to do. Refer back to items 1 and 2 on this list and start there.
  4. Be vigilant in who you hire to help you.  There are a lot of vendors out there who are selling engagement solutions. And like every business, there are the good, the bad, and the ugly. If you are clear on your definition of engagement and what business goals you’re working to achieve, you will be able to find a partner whose approach aligns to yours. And be very wary of anyone who tells you they have the single right way to measure engagement or a silver bullet program for creating engagement. Those things don’t exist and it’s how the practice ends up being labeled as “snake oil.”

– Jason Lauritsen

The Long Now of Employee Engagement by Paul Hebert

Photo of author Paul Hebert, founding member HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

Paul Hebert, Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

“Even with the data indicating employee engagement should have the same respect and funding as say sales or marketing, companies still aren’t investing in it, and those that are, are still not seeing the promised returns. You have to ask why?” – Paul Hebert

No one wants to admit it but employee engagement is a Sisyphean effort.

It shouldn’t be. But it is.

But why is it so hard? Employee engagement should be a slam dunk.

First – the evidence is clear and pretty much incontrovertible… engaged employees contribute more to the organization than disengaged employees. Higher numbers of engaged employees drive better business results, better ROC, better ROE, higher P&E ratios, better stock performance, and improved [insert almost any business performance metric here.] I won’t bother linking to all the various studies, research, and consultants’ blogs to prove those statements since those “facts” have, if by no other reason than repetition, become as axiomatic as gravity. It is a rare study that provides causation but there is so much correlation we almost can’t ignore it.

Having more engaged employees is a good thing for companies because it makes companies more money.

You would think that would be good enough. But it isn’t. Even with the data indicating employee engagement should have the same respect and funding as say sales or marketing, companies still aren’t investing in it, and those that are, are still not seeing the promised returns.

You have to ask why?

One school of thought is that there is an issue with the exact definition of “engagement.” A simple google search should convince you that there are as many definitions as there are consultants with solutions for disengagement. But regardless of the definition you use, most if not all of the definitions rest on the same core idea – getting employees to care and contribute at a level in excess of the monetary and non-monetary expense associated with the employee.

At its core, employee engagement is an ROI calculation. Every article on employee engagement highlights the “low cost” interventions you can do as a company to drive engagement. From simply saying “thanks” to giving people free soda and foosball. Combine the “costs” of engagement with the potential benefits listed above and you have an ROI that should convince any hardened CEO or CFO of the value of engagement activities.

Yet we still don’t see real investment.

Maybe it’s a lack of clarity on how to solve the myriad of employee engagement causes?

While you may find 10s if not 100s of definitions of employee engagement, there are exponentially more suggested cures for lack of employee engagement. There are as many solutions as there were patent medicines in the early 1900s – and many are just as effective. From training, to recognition. From turkeys to transparency. There is very little that you can do today that hasn’t been twisted into an employee engagement solution. I’ve seen posts saying you should call employees by their names to help drive engagement. (see #34 on that list.) I personally believe with all this engagement talk we’re simply seeing the most recent version of the Hawthorne Effect. There is practically nothing you can do that won’t increase – or is purported to increase – employee engagement.

Unfortunately, when you have that much noise in a system – the real signal is very, very difficult if not impossible to discern.

So that could be an issue.

The net-net is this – Employee engagement is a slam dunk business decision from an “ROI” standpoint but a Pan’s Labyrinth from a definition and solution standpoint. Those could be the main reasons for a lack of wide spread engagement success. But I think it is more basic than that.

I think the real reason is time. Or more importantly – the lack of thinking about engagement within a temporal construct.

The Long Now Of Employee Engagement

What is the long now?

The long now is an idea. The long now is a way of thinking. The long now is a Foundation. The long now is a clock.

And the long now should be how we think about engagement.

A little background.

Created by Stewart Brand in 1996, The Long Now Foundation is designed to balance what Brand said was “Civilization revving itself into a pathologically short attention span.” His belief was that we are fast becoming “too fast” and we need to balance that need for speed with a focus on long-term thinking and long-term responsibility. And when Brand says “long-term” he’s talking centuries – not years. To help “get our minds around long-term thinking” he has proposed building a mechanical clock into a mountain, powered by seasonal temperature changes, where it will tick once a year, bong once a century, and a cuckoo once a millennium. (That would be a very, very old cuckoo.) This clock would be the catalyst for thinking as Brand says, “past the mental barrier of an ever shortening future.”

Brand mentions acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, and the distractions of personal multi-tasking contributing to our inability to think long-term.

And he’s right.

And that thinking is exactly why we can’t get employee engagement right.

Employee Engagement is a Long Now Solution

Employee engagement, as it is practiced today, is about offer/acceptance. Companies make an offer of flextime/no-limit vacation and the employee accepts and engagement is the reciprocal response. Much like our normal “mating” rituals, where we offer dinner and the other party accepts and offers a kiss in response. Except most companies want the full experience, if you know what I mean, immediately following the offer. That, however, is a decidedly different type of relationship. One that has legal ramifications.

The point is that most companies are trying to force the engagement process into their “normal” business time frames. Months, quarters, years.

But engagement doesn’t fit that timescale. Engagement is a much deeper relationship built over time and built with multiple offers, acceptances, counteroffers and counter-acceptances. Sometimes it is a two step forward, one step back affair. Employee engagement isn’t a “do this, get that” game.

Ask almost anyone in the “engagement” game and they will talk to you about culture and how a company’s culture is what separates them from their competition. Culture is now the competitive advantage and employee engagement is part of that culture discussion. Everyone wants to affect culture. Guide it. Manage it. Mold it. And in some cases dictate it.

However, in long now thinking – culture is second only to nature in its timescale. The Foundation has outlined what they call “layers of time.” It is a graphic designed to illustrate the various timescales available ….

As the image below shows… Nature is the longest – at the bottom. At the top is fashion – with a squiggly line illustrating that it is a rather weird path. But as you can see from the graphic… Commerce is the second shortest timescale – indicated that it is fast… very fast. And Culture – which we seek to impact with all our engagement work – is plodding along just behind Mother Nature and her million year eras.

There is a natural disconnect between business/commerce and engagement.

Long now

Employee engagement and culture is a long game.

A long, long game.

Engagement doesn’t fit reporting periods. It doesn’t fit quarterly statements or annual reports. It grows, like children grow. Slowly. Steadily. Until one day you look back and ask how did they go from the car seat to the driver’s seat. It happens over a long period of time and through many different events and experiences.

Trying to fit engagement into standard business timescale is why we lack engagement.

We need to learn from the long now project and think of engagement across years, across careers, across borders and divisions.

We need to embrace the long now of employee engagement.

That doesn’t mean we should not do things in the near term. What it means is that what we do in the near term affects the long term.

That is what long now thinking is. Knowing today and tomorrow are linked and behaving that way.

– Paul Hebert

Join us tomorrow for our second panel on Employee Engagement with Dr. David Kippen, Heather Bussing, and Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. Here’s the link »

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