Are We Focusing on Employee Engagement Metrics (And Missing the Point)?

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By Linda Fisher Thornton

Employee engagement is a metric that companies are closely watching. Using surveys, levels of participation in programs, and satisfaction reports, companies measure how well they engage those they lead. Butcould this heightened level of watching be part of the problem?

Gallup’s article “The Worldwide Employee Engagement Crisis” explains that “when companies focus exclusively on measuring engagement rather than on improving engagement, they often fail to make necessary changes that will engage employees or meet employees’ workplace needs.”

As companies move to real-time employee engagement dashboards, there is a lot of data to look at, and it changes daily. Have we become fascinated by the data, and not the level of engagement of employees? When we make a change and engagement goes up, it is easy to assume that the change caused the improvement, but organizational cultures don’t operate by cause-and-effect because they are complex systems. Many other things could have changed engagement besides that “one new program or policy” that we (the measurers) are thinking about at the moment. 

“Studies have shown that committed and engaged employees who trust their leaders perform 20 percent better and are 87 percent less likely to leave the organization, and that high-trust organizations experience 50 percent less turnover than low-trust organizations.”

Drea Zigarmi and Randy Conley, Focus on Employee Work Passion, Not Employee Work Engagement, Workforce.com

Taking a high level view, what “moves the needle” on engagement is really systemic changes in the culture, trust building and improving performance management. Since those connected systems are harder to get right every day than program and policy changes, they are sometimes overlooked for small changes that seem like “easy wins.”

According to Paul J. Zak in HBR’s The Neuroscience of Trust, some of the changes that really matter in employee engagement include job crafting, working together to make progress on goals, having discretion at work, information sharing, leader vulnerability and facilitating whole-person growth.

“Today, more than twice as many employees are motivated by work passion than career ambition (12 percent vs. 5 percent), indicating a need for leadership to focus on making the work environment compelling and enjoyable for everyone.”

Brown, Melian, Solow, Chheng & Parker, The Naked Organization, Deloitte Insights

While measuring employee engagement is important, in the end the metrics are not the point. The ultimate goal is to create compelling workplaces where people flourish and grow, supported by highly competent ethical leaders.  These ethics-rich cultures generate high levels of trust (through authentic leadership, respect and care) and attract and retain talented people who want to make a difference.

The most engaging leaders can simultaneously meet organizational goals, enrich employee’s lives and meet the needs of multiple constituents using a careful balancing act based on mutual benefit. 

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