For the past 10 years or so, many of us in HR have travelled all over the globe to spread the word about employee engagement.
We talked about the value of engagement, we debated the components of engagement, we linked engagement to critical business outcomes, and we built convincing business cases that argue for the benefits of employee engagement.
This evangelism has paid off: CEB research tells us that 80% of senior leaders believe employee engagement is critical to achieving their business objectives, and 92% of companies conduct an employee engagement survey.
How Employee Engagement Got Waylaid
So, it’s all good in the world of employee engagement right?
It is. We have helped senior leaders understand that people are their most important asset (that felt cheesy to type; please forgive the sentimentality). Leaders know they need the commitment, energy, and focus of the talent in their organization in order to succeed and that it is good business to nurture engagement. But anyone that is at all familiar with corporate life will tell you that often a good idea, when loved too much, can get waylaid.
Employee engagement has got waylaid in a number of ways, and most notably in its common appearance as a numeric goal for leaders. It is easy to understand how we got to this point. Surveys produce data which yield scores. Given the numeric focus of many leaders (and the culture they work in) it only makes sense that where there are scores there are improvement goals, because what gets measured gets done. If an index score of 65% is good, then 70% is better, and this means all managers should try to raise their survey scores by 5 percentage points. All perfectly logical.
Except that this logic misses the point of the survey completely. The purpose of the engagement survey isn’t to get higher scores on the next survey. The purpose of the survey is to listen to employees, identify strengths and opportunities for improvement and discuss what actions need to be put in place to drive these improvements. A better score on the next survey is the icing on the cake but it isn’t why leaders should put in the effort.
Don’t Focus on the Score, Focus on Improving Your Business
When asked in a CEB Corporate Leadership Council study “if engagement levels in your company increased by 15%, what actions would you take?” the number one response (44% of respondents) was “Celebrate”. At the bottom of the list was “leverage for broader business decision making” at only 4%. An employee engagement survey, and the resulting score on an engagement index, is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
By focusing solely on the engagement index as the be-all-and-end-all, HR organizations and leaders have missed a massive opportunity. They have recognized the achievement of the goal but were completely oblivious to the real value of engagement: driving business results. In short, they have celebrated the score but missed the point of the game.
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