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Rethinking Employee Engagement

The global pandemic brought to surface people strategy related issues that have been simmering for years. In 2020, HBR reported on a global meta-analysis that found about 87% of the workforce could be described as “disengaged”. With this in mind, most organizational psychologists would see trends such as the Great Resignation and “quiet quitting” as inevitable.

Most employers use engagement as a summary measurement for how happy or motivated employees are, how employees are experiencing their role, rewards, or management, and how connected they may feel to the company’s broader mission or values. More importantly, there is a tendency to tie much of this to overall productivity, and ultimately the bottom line.

Discussions I’ve seen on engagement tend to conflate three related, yet different, requests leaders make of their workforce. It’s valuable to distinguish these requests when seeking to understand the employee experience through engagement data. These requests include:

  1. Are employees able to deliver on assignments and tasks?

  2. Can employees bring additional effort to go beyond what’s assigned?

  3. Will employees adapt, and in some cases, improve, during times of change

Measure the Output

This first request centers on how organizations structure jobs, if communication provided by management provides role clarity, and whether an employee’s skills match the demands of the role. Engagement scores are not the most helpful measure for understanding if work is being done, especially compared to measures that assess output. The delivery of services, quality of products, and completion of tasks can be measured, and for the forward-thinking leader can be benchmarked against goals and standards.

It’s important for these metrics to be used for prompting and support discussions about operations, rather than to trigger punitive measures. Punitive approaches can add stress on teams, encourage performative behaviors, and result in unhelpful assumptions being made about productivity. Rather, there are more helpful discussions to have. If output metrics are higher than expected, leaders can ask: Are we still meeting quality needs? Is work being done safely? What best practices can we learn from successes? If output fails to meet expectations, leaders can ask: Were expectations realistic given internal factors or external conditions? Did we communicate expectations clearly? Were the necessary tools, support and development opportunities present?

Within the context of these discussions, engagement scores that segment employee perception of their clarity on their role, or onboarding and training effectiveness, or trust on their team can be helpful in diagnosing what went wrong and what went well. On its own though, engagement scores aren’t helpful for understanding productivity and task completion.

Build the Culture

The second request seeks to understand the degree to which employees feel compelled to bring their passion or intrinsic interests to their job. Employees take notice of what they can bring to your environment based on the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, understanding of the company’s culture. It goes beyond the values that you may communicate to how those values come to life in what is role modeled, rewarded or celebrated by your formal and informal leaders of the company.

Engagement can be helpful here to understand if the environment of your company enables employees to bring their authentic selves with them to work. Oftentimes corporate culture beckons employees to leave their personal emotions, individualism, and identity at the lobby door when they walk in. Another way of interpreting lack of engagement then is the individual detachment to work. On face value I sympathize with the argument that not all of ourselves - our baggage, our issues, our quirks, our breakdowns - enable a productive team experience. But if leaders want an engaged workforce that goes beyond what’s assigned, employees need to show up to work as more than just cubical fillings that complete tasks. While seeking to preserve a professional environment, employers also require employees to mute or hide their unique experiences and diverse backgrounds that enable creativity, innovation, and industry-leading problem solving.

As you assess engagement responses to questions around culture, leaders and rewards, it can be helpful to also add to the discussion: Is our culture promoting the right behaviors to enable our strategy and mission? Do recent major decisions reflect who we are at our best, setting expectations for those who work here? Do employees perceive real rewards and recognition for going above and beyond?

Resource the Change

The last request deals more with employee adaptability and their buy-in to changes happening within the organization, than it does with productivity or general experience. The difficulty with using engagement to understand times of change lies in the nature of these surveys reflecting a snapshot, slice in time, view of employee sentiment. It’s possible that a survey done at the end of the year or during summer as employee’s prepare for vacation may provide different results than when work demands are at their peak.

That being said, our business environments are becoming increasingly complex where change is shifting from being a discrete experience in response to major decisions, to instead being an ongoing and collective state that employees find themselves navigating. Instead of viewing individual adaptability as innate to employees, leaders within organizations can directly provide resources that encourage adaptability for more successful change efforts.

Frequent engagement results that provide pulse checks are critical to understand how change is being perceived in a timely manner. However, responding to the results in a way that resources individual adaptability requires additional discussions to understand: Are employees aware of factors that may be informing and driving the need for change? Is the ‘why’ communicated behind the change compelling enough for teams to positively rally around? Have leaders demonstrated to employees what the change requires them to do differently?

In conclusion, engagement surveys can be helpful for addressing people strategy issues, but leaders need to bring additional rigor and clarity to what they are seeking to understand from the results. At LVD, we partner with organizations to reach this clarity and apply this rigor to the questions they are asking in regards to their employee surveys to ensure they are informing behavior outcomes ideal for an organization’s strategy.


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