Are You Using the Best Measure of Employee Engagement?

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Most people agree that one of the keys to organizational success is having an engaged workforce.

Over the years, the understanding and terminology around employee engagement has shifted. From employee satisfaction in the 1970’s and 80’s, to employee commitment, then employee engagement, and now sustained engagement.

Despite these changes in understanding, the basic approach is still the same. Use some form of employee survey to gather the opinions and thoughts of your team, develop an action plan to address deficiencies, rinse, and repeat.

Unfortunately, the results have been similarly stagnant. Despite decades of work, employees are still remarkably disengaged. According to a 2013 Gallup poll, only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged at work.

Why is that?

The problem could be that we are measuring and responding to the wrong things.

Feelings versus Action

While there is no single accepted definition of employee engagement, most all definitions share many of the same characteristics. One simple definition from Forbes is that “Employee engagement is the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals.”

Most surveys are designed to measure this form of engagement. They are attempting to gauge the feelings and emotions of employees by asking for their opinions.

The assumption is that if employees feel connected to the organization, it will lead to additional discretionary effort, which will improve the organization.

Unfortunately, there are some drawbacks to using this approach.

  • Surveys are focused on employee opinions, rather than observable behaviors. Survey responses may indicate that your team feels engaged, but that may not translate into action.
  • Feelings are difficult to act on. The survey results may describe symptoms of what is wrong, but does not provide guidance on how to fix it.
  • Surveys are lagging indicators. By the time results are obtained and action plans executed, significant time has been lost.
  • Too much emphasis is placed on extrinsic motivation, rather than intrinsic motivation.

While opinions and emotions are definitely part of the equation, what is missing is a thorough understanding and evaluation of what actually drives action.

How to Drive Action

In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink describes three ingredients that are necessary for intrinsic motivation: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

“Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.” – Daniel H. Pink

Autonomy refers to the desire to be self-directed. Employees want to own their work.

Mastery is the desire to improve and grow. Whether it is personal growth or team performance, we all have a desire to get better.

Purpose is the desire to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

When you put all three of these together, the recipe for motivating individuals to action is to create an environment in which employees are responsible for owning and improving their own work in pursuit of larger organizational goals.

What measures are missing?

Most modern employee engagement surveys do a good job of addressing the issue of purpose with employees. They typically ask a number of questions to determine the connection that employees feel between their work and the overall mission and goals of the organization.

Autonomy and mastery are another issue. What should be measured to ensure that we are providing motivation for our teams in the form of the opportunity to own and improve their work?

It depends on the organization and the structure of their improvement efforts. There is not one single measure that will work for everyone, but employee involvement in improvement efforts should be measured in some way.

Alan Robinson and Dean Schroeder, the authors of Ideas are Free and The Idea Driven Organization, have proposed a number of metrics that are useful for tracking employee engagement in improvement activities. Two types in particular are what they refer to as quantity metrics and source metrics.

Quantity metrics refer to measures of how many ideas are being generated. A simple example would be to measure the number of ideas generated per employee over a specified period of time. This type of metric is relatively easy to track for most organizations and can provide significant value in managing the overall effectiveness of improvement efforts.

Source metrics refer to the spread of those ideas. If your team generated 100 ideas, was it from one employee generating 100 ideas or 100 employees generating one idea? Participation rate, or percentage of employees who have submitted an idea, is one example of a simple source metric. Tracking this information can help ensure improvement efforts are not overly reliant on one single superstar and that a majority of the workforce is engaged in the efforts.

The exact measures that work for your organization will depend on your culture and improvement structure. Here are some additional examples of metrics for measuring improvement engagement:

  • % of employees who have participated in improvement project
  • % of improvements generated from bottom-up efforts
  • # of employees trained in improvement methodology
  • Average $ saved per employee
  • % of employee ideas that result in change

What measures are you currently using? Are they giving you a clear picture of engagement in your organization? Let me know in the comments.

In an organization that values continuous improvement, engaged employees are a necessity. Rather than relying on the opinions and emotions reflected by an engagement survey, leaders should rely on metrics that directly reflect on employee involvement in improvements.

In a future post, we will explore in more detail some of the reasons that employees don’t get involved in improvement and how to address them.

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