Employee Engagement, Fog Sculpting, and Measuring Love

Do you believe the following statement?

High levels of employee engagement keenly correlate to individual, group and corporate performance in areas such as retention, turnover, productivity, customer service and loyalty.

It’s from Employee Engagement:What Exactly is It? by Patricia Soldati.

How about this following statement?

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of an engaged workforce on a company’s bottom line.

That one is Julie Gebauer (whom I know) of Towers Perrin at The Workforce Disengagement Problem.  

I believe both statements. I believe them a lot, in fact. (And not just because Julie Gebauer says so—though that helps!).

Trouble is—what do you do with it?

“Employee engagement” is one of those concepts that straddle a thin line: how to be complex enough to be true—and yet simple enough to be practical?

• Over-stress explanation, and you risk fog-sculpting—creating beautiful conceptual landscapes that are unactionable;
• Over-stress actionability, and you risk measuring love—mechanizing the things that make humanity human.

Similar issues arise with concepts like loyalty, employee satisfaction, organizational commitment, or identifying customer needs.

There are four risks here.

The first two risks are definitions, and identifying drivers. Soldati says:

In 2006, The Conference Board published "Employee Engagement, A Review of Current Research and Its Implications"…twelve major studies on employee engagement had been published over the prior four years by top research firms such as Gallup, Towers Perrin, Blessing White, the Corporate Leadership Council and others.  Each of the studies used different definitions and, collectively, came up with 26 key drivers of engagement.

Four of the studies agreed on eight of the 26 drivers.  All studies agreed that the strongest driver is the relationship with one’s manager.

Believe it?  I do.  No problem believing that one at all.  But it’s dangerously close to the fog-sculpting end of things, up there with good parenting, moral values and integrity.

The third risk is causality. For example: it is statistically proven that shorter people have lower IQ scores.

Don’t believe it? Compare 7-year olds’ test scores with 20-somethings’ performance on the same test.  See? Height is clearly correlated with IQ.

Correlation is not causality. David Hume (who outranks even Julie Gebauer), famously showed it’s impossible to prove causality.

The search for causality, in service to managerial actions and simplicity, forces us down the path of measuring love—which, like an emotional Heisenberg Principle, can destroy the thing being measured if overdone.

Which leads to the fourth risk—in today’s business environment, the biggest of all: measurement-driven behavioralism.

“Employee engagement” is the latest star in the umpteenth remake of a movie we’ve seen too often: define drivers, measure them, benchmark the measures, attach rewards, and link pay to performance against the metrics.

This leads managers to ask HR to causally link “engagement” to shareholder value, define indicators for the links, and provide incentive plans to drive the whole Rube Goldberg scheme.  By Tuesday, please.

I suspect the HR community is even more at fault for encouraging this kind of thinking.

Of the two sins, I’d rather be subjected to fog-sculpting. At least it fires the imagination.

By contrast, measuring love is inherently dehumanizing.

Turning “engagement” into an engineering exercise is—I believe—a great recipe for disengagement.

Scott Flander takes a good look at all this in “Terms of Engagement” in Human Resource Executive Online.  He quotes Ian Ziskin, chief HR officer at Northrup Grumman:

I’ve found over time that the single biggest thing to focus on is not the actual scores or the response rates — that’s a means to an end. The end is, do you really understand what the issues are in your business, and what are the actions you’re taking to improve them?

I don’t know Ziskin, but he sounds a thoughtful exec; he knows how to sculpt fog, and how to measure love.  And he artfully chooses a Middle Way.

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