2021-01-20 HR Examiner article Paul Hebert Stop Measuring Employee Engagement theres something better stock photo img cc0 by AdobeStock 204112771 edit 544x285px.jpg

“We grow in our careers. The company changes its focus, its products and services, its market position. There is no baseline for engagement to be tied to. As an employee it is natural that my engagement will rise and fall.” - Paul Hebert


Stop Measuring Employee Engagement
(there’s something better)


I have been focused in one way or another on employee engagement for over 20 years, creating programs and initiatives that increase overall employee engagement. I’ve used all the techniques, the tricks, best practices and even some that aren’t best practices but still helpful. And 100% of the time I’ve been successful 33% of the time.


That’s not a rip off of the Brian Fantana cologne joke from Anchorman.


It’s a fact.


Every engagement I’ve ever had with a company I have positively impacted their employee engagement scores. Every. Single. Time. It’s not rocket science. It’s something I’ve dubbed the “Hawthorneing of Engagement” – riffing on the famous productivity experiments at the western Electric factory plant outside Chicago in the 1920s. That experiment showed that anytime you pay attention to someone it affects their motivation and engagement. Therefore, I proposed, any effort to improve or influence engagement will in fact, positively influence engagement.


New survey – engagement goes up.


New foosball table – engagement goes up.


New flavored water – engagement goes up.


20 years on in the engagement wars we still hover in the 33% engaged range


Unfortunately, over time, any gains in employee engagement will regress back to the mean. And that is why 20 years on in the engagement wars we still hover in the 33% engaged range. I’ve also stated a few times that maybe, just maybe, 30-ish percent is the maximum level of engagement for an employee population once it passes a couple of hundred people. Meaning – small companies with few employees can be 80% engaged, but the vast majority of companies with more than say 500 employees will start to fall into a more Gaussian distribution with the mean being around 30%. Therefore, any effort to move above the 30 percent range will be met with increasing effort for less marginal change. (It will take increasingly more effort to move the engagement needle the same amount the further to the right of the average – for those of you in Rio Linda.)


Paul Hebert, HRExaminer.com 2015

Paul Hebert | Founding Member, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

Note to academics and critics – those are opinions. I have yet to find a study to look into either of those claims but I’m confident if someone wants to do them, they will find results that will back me up.


Because I believe that engagement change is a function of the Hawthorne Effect and a theoretical limit to moving the engagement above 35% I think we need to create a better way of looking at engagement in our companies.


I do believe engagement is critical. I don’t believe focusing on the score is the answer.


I believe employee engagement at a point in time is irrelevant and should be thrown out with leeches and stack rankings.


Change is our only constant like any relationship, the employee and employer relationship isn’t static. We all grow in our jobs. We grow in our careers. The company changes in its focus, its products and services, its market position. There is no baseline for engagement to be tied to. As an employee it is natural that my engagement will rise and fall.


As I become better at my job my desire to grow increases. I want more responsibility. I want more money. I want new challenges. Do those desires match the company’s needs? Have the company’s products and services changed to a degree I don’t fit any more? Did we move to holocracy just when I was getting that sweet VP spot with the corner office and expense account? All those changes can move us quickly from engaged to disengaged.


Knowing change is constant and engagement changes over time, is a single, raw engagement score something we should care about?


Or should we assume engagement is a yo-yo – and each employee will have highs and lows? To be successful today most businesses must react faster and faster to changes in the market. As Jack Welch said, “When the rate of change outside the organization exceeds the rate of change inside the organization the end is near.”


Should we approach engagement with the same point of view. Should we look at the change in engagement vs. its “score”?


It’s About Recovery – the MTBED


Engaged employees need no intervention. They are engaged. Whatever you’re doing as a manager or a company – keep doing it. It’s working.


Disengaged employees need intervention. What is their gap? How do you intervene? What can you do to get that employee back to “engaged” status?


Reacting quickly and effectively is the key driver of engagement.


But just as you finish your intervention with the employee who was disengaged, your engaged employee will start to slip into disengagement. It’s this “trading places” syndrome that keeps the overall score at 32%. And why that score doesn’t matter.


Every employee goes in and out of engagement “phase.”


The key to success in HR in the future will be creating ways for the company (read: Managers) to react quickly to changes in engagement vs. trying to maintain a specific level of engagement.


In other words, success lies in managing the change from engaged to disengaged. And the best thing we can do is make the time between engaged and disengaged as small as possible.


We need to start measuring and impacting the “Mean Time Between Engagement and Disengagement.” (MTBED)


Employee engagement waxes and wanes. That is an immutable law of engagement. We can’t change that any more than we can change gravity.


We can, however, impact the amount of time the employee stays disengaged. And the longer someone remains disengaged, the more likely their state of mind will impact their performance, their interactions with other employees and ultimately the business outcomes.


But until we know what that MTBED is, we can’t begin to manage it.


I suggest, for the future, HR create a MTBED number for each employee and an aggregate for each manager – and manage to that number.


The overall engagement score doesn’t really matter if I can limit the time every employee will spend disengaged. Less time disengaged – more time engaged.


Mind the gap.

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