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.

4 replies
  1. Kelly
    Kelly says:
    Thanks for the great post! Yes, causality is a slippery slope. A short while ago a study was published (Harvard?) which linked diabetes with drinking diet soda. My parents, both diabetics, heard about it and had several dry weeks spent worrying. When I read all the "linked" lifestyle choices, I concluded that diet soda is clearly a cause of being in the middle class! This is good news if you are in poverty, but bad news if you are rich. Consider diet soda carefully!
    As to employee engagement, it’s true that measuring human sentiment is not really possible. On the other hand, management can influence the involvement and enjoyment of staff more readily and inexpensively than almost any other element of Customer Experience.
    Customers choose to linger, to purchase, to make larger purchases, to return, and to spread the word, based in large part on the human interactions they have while dealing with a business. Customers will forgive bad decor if they enjoy dealing with the people at the firm (I do this regularly at my mechanic’s, for instance).
    Employees choose to stay on, to believe in their product or service, and to spread the word based on their enjoyment/ fulfillment/ satisfaction in the workplace.
    This morning I wrote a post on the interactive experience of customers and employees. Especially at larger firms, where managers may not have the chance to influence signage, logos, location, or flash websites, this is the area where they can really change the dynamic. In a smaller firm, owners and management will see results more quickly in a staff "makeover" than in changing any other design element.
    You can’t engineer a love of your company and your Vision, but you can lead and influence. So go ahead and sculpt a little fog.
  2. Paul Hebert
    Paul Hebert says:

    Employee engagement is a moving target.  Today I’m engaged because I had a great review and my options are above water.  Tomorrow…maybe not so much.

    In addition, any added benefit or perk that is included to increase engagement ends up being the next survey’s miminum qualifier.  In other words, it will take more and more. 

    The bottom line (IMHO) is this…

    If you have a method of having conversations with your employees, and communicating your response to those dialogues you will have engaged employees.  That is the goal – conversations, communications, outcomes. 

    Engagement – by definition is a two-way street.  A company needs to do all it can to enable both lanes of traffic.

  3. Tom "Bald Dog" Varjan
    Tom "Bald Dog" Varjan says:

    I was thinking about this in relation to Xmas. I have some close friends and we’ve never given each other any gift. Not even a card. But we treat each other with utmost trust and respect throughout the year. No special occasion is required. And throughout the year I make a point of regularly meeting these people for lunch and discuss where they are in their lives.

    And of course, if they need help in any shape or form, I’ll drop all payable work and run to help them out. And they’ll do the same for me.

    As a manager, if I don’t wait until the next review but give instant feedback, I show respect for the person and feed her appetite for improvement. But I have to do that throughout the year. If I don’t do that the Xmas party is useless.

    I have a friend who can call her people’s families, and both spouses and kids know who this woman is even if she only says, "Hi Jimmy, this is Jess". She has 1-to-1 relationship with each of her people. She makes a point of having breakfast and lunch with one of her people every day and discuss "life" with them. I don’t know where she’s learnt this (David) "Maisterian" approach but it certainly works.

    I believe a good department could be managed the same way as a family. And in families there is no annual review. But there is instant feedback, tender loving care and high expectations for commitment, discipline and accountability. But not in the form of pressure as is in many companies, but in the form of challenge. And parents are there to help their kids to step up to the challenge. And they don’t use numbers. They create an environment in which the kids enjoy excelling.

    I think this could be done at work too.

  4. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:

    Kelly, I’m with you.  "Go sculpt a little fog."  Which I think is very much in line with what Tom is saying too; the best route to engagement is in the daily stuff, the ongoing interactions. 

    I like Paul’s point about a moving target too; just goes to show you it’s a fluid, human thing.


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